Monday, August 20, 2012

San Francisco, PETA and the stigma of "Homelessness"

Source: SF Gate

This July, San Francisco announced a plan to pair homeless individuals with shelter dogs who have a history of behavior issues of have proven difficult to adopt.  The program was immediately controversial.  The resulting opposition by some animal rights groups, as well as the narrative created by the media, serves as a stinging example of the way homeless populations are stereotyped and stigmatized.  
Overseen by San Francisco Animal Care and Control, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos (WOOF), is providing eight participants with a small weekly stipend and employment counseling, as well as full food and health services for their dog.  In exchange, the individuals must be currently residing in steady housing, have no history of violence and be either sober or seeking treatment for drug abuse.  Any panhandling activity will result in expulsion from the program.  The participants are currenlty being instructed in basic training and animal care, while the dogs are being gradually trained in interacting with humans.

The program is being funded through a private grant of $10,000 by San Francisco socialite Vanessa Getty, who wanted to respond to the rampant overcrowding of San Francisco shelters, and was conceived by Myor Ed Lee's point person on homelessness, Bryan Dufty.

In a video produced by the ACAC, program leaders visit the participants in their housing prior to the beginning of the program.

Among news outlets, the SF gate so far stands alone in choosing to portray those involved by actually portraying those involved, printing a number of photographs of the WOOF participants and their dogs.

Source: SF Gate
The individuals profiled above bear little resemblance to the photographs provided by most news media and blogs.  Animal news magazine Global Animal wrote uncritically of the proposal, but simultaneously described San Francisco as being, "notorious for streets overflowing with beggars".  They accompanied their story with the preceding image, an image from an unrelated Flickr stream which was then copied by an article by the Huffington Post:  

Photo Credit: Beverly & Pack/flickr 

Though it is a stated goal of the WOOF program to reduce pan handling, the exclusivity with which headlines made use of the word reduces the homeless population to the level of Global Animals' supposed overflow of beggars.  The program was announced as, "Puppies and Panhandlers," by the Huffington Post, while the local ABC affiliate's headline read, "SF Program will pay panhandlers to rescue dogs."  Fox News' headline read, "San Francisco Program Pairs Pan Handlers With Pound Puppies."  Granted, it is likely that many of the participants do have a history of pan handling.  But it seems irresponsible to exclusively refer to this activity, and to repeatedly use it to define a group of otherwise diverse individuals.

However, WOOF's key opponent remains People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  In a blog post published on July 17th, PETA provided the following image, also taken from an unrelated Flickr stream: 

Photo Credit: Franco Folini/flickr

The attached headline reads, "San Francisco Gives Dogs to Pan Handlers", and the article warns that, "Handing over troubled animals to troubled people will save neither, and it places both at risk of injury, further trauma, and a bad end."  Author Michelle Kretzer cautions that, "Many homeless people are battling substance-abuse or mental-health issues,  If they are unable to adequately meet their own needs, the last thing the city should do is saddle them with the needs of another individual."  

This came in concert with PETA's issuing of a letter to city officials.  Written by spokesperson Teresa Chagrin, the letter warns that, "Handing over troubled animals to troubled people will save neither, and it places both at risk of injury, further trauma, and a bad end," adding, "It should be out of the question to play Russian roulette with these animals."  The organization went on to offer $10,000 in matching funds.  In return for the program being shut down entirely, PETA would supply training and materials for homeless individuals to be put to work distributing leaflets for spaying and nuetering.  Their chief concern was addressing the issue of pan handling without getting any animals involved. 

"It is one of those issues where everyone just holds their breath and prays," Chagrin says.  Now that the program is in effect, PETA's funds are no longer on the table, and the organization remains extremely opposed to the idea.  Chagrin describes it as, "Putting troubled animals with troubled individuals and hoping for a miracle."

Rebecca Katz, an administrator for ACAC, has been overseeing the training sessions and finds fault with many of the criticisms.  "To make an immediate assumption that anyone who has every been homeless is unfit for caring for an animal is unfair" she stated.  Finding a note of classism in the equating of homelss indivudals with abusive or negligent behavior, Katz says that, "We see animal abuse in wealthy homes as often as in poor homes."  In response to the assertion that these are troubled individuals, Katz argued that "These are people in supportive housing.  Which means stable housing," noting the predominance of studio style housing in which the individualism reside.  

Describing PETA's letter as unfortunate  Katz said that one participant had already been removed from the program to seek additional treatment, while one unresponsive chihuahua had already been exchanged for a more well behaved dog.   She stressed that the screening process for program participants is more intensive than the placement process for any other dog owner.  "We know the power of the human animal bond," she concluded, "We have a number of people who change their situation in their life because of their dog.  That’s the beauty of the symbiotic relationship." 

Concern about the welfare of shelter animals is a valid one.  However, the coverage of this issue expresses a dis interest in fully understanding the stories of those involved, preferring to dismiss them with derogatory terminology or to simply portray them as exclusively young, male and white.  There is a  vast margin between the reasonable expression of concern and the casting of assumptions based entirely on a person's class and social status.  The substance abusing individuals described by PETA are notably barred from involvement, and the inevitable disaster described in much of WOOF's press seems to bare little resemblance to the actual program.  Instead, we are left with another rotation of the news and blog cycle that diminishes an at risk population, while further perpetuating a set of narrow and stereotypical imagery.