A few people wearing face masks distribute pet food on the sidewalk of West 60th Street in a drive-through setting. Amid the evolving coronavirus pandemic, the Shelter Intervention Program at Downtown Dog Rescue in South LA has continued to provide support for low-income pet owners. But instead of working in offices, counselors stand on the sidewalks because the animal shelter is closed.

The organization’s founder, Lori Weise, said the alternative program has almost 25 clients visiting per day in need of care for their pets. Most of the clients are people experiencing homelessness or poverty.

“A lot of the people feel they don't have family, they can't find pet food, so we're like the food bank that operates out of the back of our counselor Amanda's car,” Weise said. “We're really making it more obvious that we're giving people food because we know there's a lot of people that don't have transportation or feeling very desperate.”

The program normally deals with about 10 cases a day, but the number has more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic because of the newly arised concerns about getting pet food, Weise said. People’s panic drives them to hoard, so there are long lines outside the supermarket and sometimes it’s hard to find pet food, Weise added.

“We're seeing double, triple quadruple the number of people because we have more longtime clients feeling desperate,” Weise said. “Even people that we haven't seen for a year are coming out because a couple people had concerns that their dog could get sick.”

In addition, many people have been laid off, which places economic burdens to keep pets, according to Amanda Casarez, the manager and counselor of the Shelter Intervention Program.

“There is a huge demand right now and people are getting kicked off because you have to go online,” Casarez said. “[Life] is frozen, [and] there are so many people trying to apply for unemployment.”

Weise said both clients, counselors and even herself feel nervous in the face of the coronavirus crisis, so the alternative program further creates a psychological connection among them to give each other support and warmth.

“Right now there's a real sense that we're all in a crisis together, and we can offer some caring and support and compassion and a reminder that we're not alone,” Weise said. “I think it goes both ways, because even some of the clients really offer encouragement to the counselors to be brave and stay healthy.”

Hiram Kelly, who doesn’t have a fixed income, is a long-time client of the program where he gets pet foods for his dog and cat on a monthly basis. Kelly said his pets mean the world to him, and therefore he’s grateful for all the help provided by the program.

“I have more food for them than I do for myself. I just got food from Amanda like two days ago,” Kelly said. “It’s a very good program, and those [volunteers] go out of their way to help you.”

The Shelter Intervention Program aims at allowing people and their pets to stay together and decreasing shelter intake numbers. The program is also part of the Downtown Dog Rescue, a non-profit organization focusing on rescuing dogs and offering services to low-income pet owners, according to its website.

Weise founded Downtown Dog Rescue in 1996 by working with poor or homeless people in the Skid Row community where she discovered there were many reasons for them to give up their pets, including facing severe health problems, going to prison and running out of money.

“I got very aware of this whole community of people that would support each other,” Weise recounted in a phone interview. “I saw how hard they worked to take care of each other’s animals when somebody went to the hospital or in some cases, some people are using drugs and alcohol and the lifestyle is not that healthy and they end up dying.”

About 20 years ago, Weise recounted there were a lot of poor people relinquishing their dogs in downtown LA. Almost 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters every year, according to a study of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The study also indicates that being unable to afford pets’ medical care and family situations are leading reasons for pet relinquishment.

“Almost 70% of the [clients] can’t afford medical care,” Weise said. “We’ve seen it all there. They have surgery and they have no one to take care of the animal. They have to go to serve a sentence. They’re survivors of domestic violence and they just don’t have anywhere to go except for women's shelter and they can’t take the dog.”

Weise said she founded the first Shelter Intervention Program with the South LA Animal Shelter, which has the lowest adoption rate. The program focuses on offering individualized solutions to people who want to surrender their pets to shelters after counseling services, Weise said.

"The first step is to have the [shelters’] staff identify that [pet owners] have a need and they want to work with us," Weise said. “And then they get referred to our counselor who will get the story and determine what the options are for this person.”

Weise said normally the program would offer financial or psychological support and refer resources or guidance to clients. According to the program’s website, the most common costs are for spaying pets and providing medical care. Weise added the funding is from Michelson Found Animals Foundation and other donations.

“Sometimes we pay for everything if the person is homeless and has no income, other times we'll ask for a copay. Sometimes we don't have to pay anything. The person really just needs guidance,” Weise said.

In a few cases, Weise said the program has long-time clients who need pet foods monthly due to their physical disabilities or devastating financial situation, so the program finds a social worker from other agencies to help them not become homeless and in the process keep their pets.

“[The program] helps the person more because the pet is not really the problem. It's how did they get here,” Weise said. “Of course if the person's life is improved, the life of the pet is going to be greatly improved.”

Choosing between a place to live and a beloved pet is a common dilemma for many low-income people due to the no-pet policy in many apartments or shelters, Weise said. Many people keep their pets at the expense of being homeless, Weise said.

“It's a very difficult part of the program to support their decision knowing that this decision is going to lead them [to] stay homeless and greater unhappiness,” Weise said. “It's just a big challenge to be able to offer these services and step away and not start controlling people [or] really trying to put them in a box and force them to do things.”

Casarez said some might think that people living in low-income neighborhoods don’t care about their pets and relinquish them, but actually they just need help when experiencing a dilemma.

“With this program, we don’t judge anybody,” Casarez said. “It offers health for these people, whether it’s just a bag of dog food or just an ear to listen, for somebody to tell you it’s okay to feel this way.”