Sandy Swank, a dog lover herself, understands why some people who are homeless choose their pets over a safe, warm place to stay.
She's seen it many times: People without a place to call home stay on the streets because they don't want to leave their dog, or cat, or bird, or hedgehog. Name an animal, and she's seen it, she said.
Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, is hoping a new program organized by the Sedgwick County Animal Response Team will help homeless pet owners.
The all-volunteer organization, which deploys to help animals during natural disasters and other emergencies, is starting "Project Care." It will provide free veterinary care for animals affected by homelessness.
The team plans to offer quarterly clinics during which pets can be examined by a veterinarian and given shots to prevent illnesses at no charge.
"We see the need," said Wichita veterinarian Christen Skaer, president of the response team. "A lot of people who are homeless have pets, and we believe pets are important to their physical and mental health."
Like Swank, Skaer said the team has "seen evidence that people will stay on the street rather than relinquish their pets to (an animal) shelter."
And most shelters for people don't accept pets.
Although Inter-Faith Inn, one of Inter-Faith Ministries' homeless shelters, officially doesn't take in pets, Swank is known to bend the rules. "If it's a question of letting someone freeze to death, or letting their pet in, I think it's a fairly easy question to answer," she said earlier this year.
But she asks that pets be up to date on their vaccinations, which often is a barrier.
Pets are the only sense of family some people have, Swank and Skaer said.
Skaer said providing free care will help pets living on the streets be healthier by preventing parasites, rabies and other diseases that animals face without proper vaccinations.
The clinics also will help keep the animal response team trained.
The team is soliciting donations from the public and has contacted drug companies for help with vaccines.
Skaer said the project has been in the works for about four months.
The first clinic will be Oct. 12 at the Safe Haven homeless shelter. Other clinics are scheduled for March 8 and July 12.
"Our volunteers are excited. I think it's a nice way to keep people engaged year-round," Skaer said of training for the team. "And of course, we get to help people. How fun is that?"