› The idea: Call it benign bribery. The city of San Francisco will launch a pilot program this August to pair up residents of government-supported housing with homeless puppies. The catch? The humans have to promise not to panhandle.
WOOF (Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos) was conceived by Rebecca Katz, the city’s director of animal care, and Bevan Dufty, the director of housing opportunities. It’s designed to address two problems. First, since the 2008 recession, San Francisco has been taking in hundreds more homeless animals per year, euthanizing more as well. Second, with its robust social services, the city is often cited as a magnet for out-of-town homeless, and there’s a perennial public outcry over panhandling, according to Katz.
But WOOF has attracted controversy—both for its carrot-and-stick approach, and due to concern for the dogs’ safety.
“It’s disappointing how people talk about the homeless, as if they’re incapable of caring for these dogs,” says Katz. “And anyway, it isn’t like we’re going up to some guy sleeping in a doorway and handing him a puppy.” (Indeed— Katz and Dufty are currently identifying worthy candidates along with social agencies in the city.)
› Would it work here?: “There’s a growing amount of research suggesting companion animals are good for people dealing with physical and mental-health issues,” says Michael Shapcott, director of housing and innovation with Toronto’s Wellesley Institute. “The idea of fusing all that together is very good.”
But he dislikes the anti-panhandling requirement: “I’m always dubious of social-engineering exercises to cajole people.” He says that most panhandlers are begging to meet basic needs: “If San Francisco is addressing those issues then they will naturally decrease the amount of panhandling.”
With WOOF just being implemented, the best approach for other cities may be to wait and see.