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The 'Street Vet' provides free care to homeless people's beloved pets

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When we refer to the unhoused, we usually mean people. Their pets are overlooked. In Southern California, there's a veterinarian who, for years, has been providing free medical care for the cherished companions of the homeless. Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Few outsiders breach the invisible boundaries of Los Angeles' Skid Row. Its residents emerge from behind blue tarps, cardboard and scavenged materials. It is real estate marked by suffering, addiction, illness and a simmering rage. It is where veterinarian Dr. Kwane Stewart can often be found. He's looking for animals that need his help. One appears within minutes - a smiling pit bull mix and his owner, a woman with a worried look on her face. The tall man in blue scrubs bends down eye level with the dog.

KWANE STEWART: Who's this?

LISA: Natasha.

STEWART: Natasha?

LISA: Uh-huh.

STEWART: She's a beautiful dog. Yeah.

HILLARD: The older woman nods in agreement as Stewart takes the stethoscope from around his neck and gently holds the animal.

STEWART: Be a good girl. Let me take a listen, OK?

HILLARD: Stewart treats the dog for a mild ear infection and tells Lisa he'll check on both of them in a week. Many of the homeless here won't give their last names. They want to protect their privacy, their identity, of which they have little left. But Lisa is willing to say what Natasha means to her.

LISA: Everything. Everything. She needs me, and she's important. She's my priority.

STEWART: I realize how vital these pets are to these people. And I see the relationship. I see the need. And the one small area I can help is provide a resource they have trouble getting.

HILLARD: It was his time as a veterinarian at a high-kill shelter that brought Stewart to this work.

STEWART: I said I can't go into work. I didn't - I couldn't go into work and euthanize another dog in the shelter.

HILLARD: One day, he stopped to talk to a homeless man with a sick dog. After treating the animal, he returned a week later.

STEWART: The man was forever grateful and he just said, with tears in his eyes, thanks for not ignoring me.

HILLARD: Stewart has been walking these streets for six years. Someone points down the street. Hercules, a short and sturdy dog with a new harness, is having trouble walking. His owner, a young man leaning against a chain link fence, says the dog was hit by a car.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mean the world to me. A nice dog. I love him.

HILLARD: He watches closely as Stewart examines the dog's hind leg.

STEWART: His knee is swollen. I'm hoping he just sprained it. What I'd like to do is get him in for an x-ray, though.

HILLARD: Stuart recently gave up his practice at a clinic and established a nonprofit called Project Street Vet to help pay for this care.

STEWART: You guys know of anyone nearby who has a pet?

HILLARD: Down the street is a noticeably clean tent, a sign that its owner has not been here long. Holding a small black kitten with a green halter is Anna, a young woman with green streaks in her shoulder-length hair.

ANNA: He was homeless, too. So we’re just being homeless together.

HILLARD: She tells the veterinarian she's been doing her best to take care of the kitten she named Coal.

STEWART: You're doing a good job. He looks good.

HILLARD: The 27-year-old grins and hugs the small creature to her chest.

ANNA: He is only thing that keeps us sane.

HILLARD: Words Dr. Kwane Stewart has heard many times. These beloved companions are a lifeline for those who call Skid Row home.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.