Seattle Veterinary Outreach at Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Senior Center July 21 - not just for pets

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Look for the big red mobile parked in front of the Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Senior Center on July 21st from 11:00am to 2:00pm

Story and photos by Donna Hawkey

"We're a portal to better health," says Dr. Hanna Ekström, founder of the mobile Seattle Veterinary Outreach, SVO, which provides free veterinary care for the pets of owners who are homeless, and pay-what-you-can for people living low-income and having difficulty paying for veterinary services.

The SVO mobile will be parked in front of the Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Senior Center on July 21, 2021 from 11:00am to 2:00pm. Depending on how many veterinarians volunteer, the mobile clinic can provide service for between 20 and 35 pets, so come early if your pet has an urgent need.

Since starting the organization in 2019, they have treated over 1,000 pets. People travel from all over, sometimes as far as Tacoma, to receive these essential services.

Dr. Hanna Ekström, founder of Seattle Veterinary Outreach.
"Everyone Deserves Kindness"

Dr. Ekström extended her outreach services to pet owner needs in 2020 because when caring for people’s pets, she saw firsthand the needs of the pet owner, too. She also realized that she could build on the trust shared between veterinarian and pet owner to help people find better health for themselves.

"I see it in their faces, the struggle and the hardships that would seem insurmountable to most of us. It shows the power of human resilience, and the lengths people will go to keep their beloved pet healthy and happy."

The pet owner was both thrilled that her puppies got check-ups, and that “ I signed up for health care too – and right here!”

In early 2021, she hired a social worker, Scott Beck, to help better connect people to human-need resources. In four months, he has provided over 400 referrals to local human service providers. 


"Many referrals are for things like gas cards, bus passes, and food assistance, but lots of people don't know that they qualify for these benefits or don't know how to access them. Also, many of our clients don’t own a cell phone or computer, which is a huge obstacle to filling out applications. 
"So, we can get the ball rolling for them by helping fill in applications, teaming with Access Wireless to provide a free phone, or with Molina Healthcare to get them connected to healthcare and a caseworker who can continue to assist them as they navigate the many barriers to finding housing and health.”

This pet owner plays with a donated toy for his best buddy.  He said “I could not afford to own a pet if it were not for all the services here, I’m very thankful.”

Recently Mr. Beck was able to help get a man housed who has been homeless for 15 years. He suffers from severe PTSD from his active-duty time in the Marines. He had been living in a tent while battling cancer, managing his diabetes, and caring for his two beloved cats. Very few shelters allow pets.

“When you consider the power of that only friend or family member - think about it - would you leave your child or best friend on the street so that you could go into a shelter?” says Dr. Ekström. 
“Most people could not imagine such a choice, and when your life is torn apart, a relationship with a beloved pet can sustain you until you can the help needed to put your life back together again. 
"And from the pet’s point of view, cats and dogs don't need buildings to live in, but they do need the unconditional love of their owners. Getting people housed is a win-win-win for the person, the pet, and our community.”

The pet owners she sees are there for their pets no matter their financial circumstances, especially when their pet is sick. 

"Pets can be a person's only family member. Someone told me he would skip meals and his medicine so that he could buy glaucoma drops for his beloved dog. I would do the same if I were in a similar position."

Researchers have observed that the pet bond is so close for a person who has become homeless that they become a pack of two. Anxiety is naturally eased because they spend all their time together in such a close bond. A strong feeling of safety is created that’s healthy for both humans and pets.

Waiting and being patient is easy when you have your best friend on your lap.

Dr. Eckström said that "While meeting so many different people such as a woman that could have been my grandmother, every day this work opens up my heart even more than the day before. There are so many unfortunate stigmas associated with unhoused people. 

"I can tell you that people who are homeless are not all drug addicts, and it is not personal failing that puts so many in this dire situation, it is the effect of childhood adverse experiences, trauma, and structural racism. 
"The complex and tragic stories behind many of those living homeless require new tools in our toolbelt, along with empathy and the ability to provide hope."

Another way she provides hope is through her work with her Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar team, made up of herself, Dr. Catherine Wheeler, Jessica Lowery, RN, and Cholette Ness, LVT. This team works to bring primary care, harm reduction, and wound care to folks living in tents and RVs throughout the city of Seattle. 

Dr. Wheeler says, “by meeting people where they are, we can work together with our clients, and hopefully transition them to regular care either with the King County Med Van, or a regular primary care provider.” Dr. Ekström adds, “our outreach work is just one more doorway through which people can get connected to the resources they need to live healthier lives, for themselves, and for their pets.”

Pet homelessness

On average, there are five homeless dogs or cats per one homeless person in America. According to Shelter Animals Count, shelters are so overrun with dogs and cats that approximately 1.5 million dogs and cats are euthanized per year. If you are considering adoption, please take a look at shelter pets first. Dr. Ekström herself loves her three rescued pets fiercely and gratefully!

Donated pet items from beds to treats to personalized name tags can all be found right here!

Here are further thoughts and insights from Dr. Ekström:

How do you receive funding?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided a three-year grant totaling almost $500,000, which helped us expand our team to include a primary care physician and a nurse who can see people while we are seeing pets. 

In addition, we have received a sustaining grant from the Jacobi Foundation which has truly been our organizations life-blood as we worked to establish this program. We have also received funds from the Seattle Foundation, the ASPCA, Petsmart, and Banfield, as well as from many private individuals who believe in our mission. Last but not least, we are blessed with a strong team of passionate volunteers who work side by side to improve the culture of health for the people and pets we serve.

Having Molina Healthcare on site helps people get answers to their questions first hand rather than having to experience the frustrations of trying to apply online. Enrollees get the option of signing up for a caseworker to help them navigate through the oftentimes complicated process of obtaining housing. Molina also teams with a wireless phone provider so enrollees have a way to stay in touch with their doctors. 

What are your greatest strengths as an organization?

Partnerships have been one of our best strengths. We partner with medical doctors, nurses, and technicians. We develop working relationships with social service providers such as Real Change News, Recovery Café, and local Food Banks. In addition, we partner with Molina Healthcare to help connect folks with healthcare, and Access wireless to get free phones into the hands of those who need them.

What was one big surprise for you?

I had no idea that this project would grow so quickly. When I started, we just had four volunteers working one day a month! The need is so much bigger than I anticipated, we are now offering eight clinics a month and would love to do more!

A pet loving Subaru driving and hiking club raised $2,200 cleaning up back road trails. The event was supported by a Subaru dealer who printed t-shirts for everyone.   

Describe your most significant return on this work

This work builds trust among people who have lost faith in others by building on the human-animal bond as a great uniter. By providing loving care to people’s pets, we aspire to bring hope and health to “both ends of the leash.” Finally, our work helps keep our community healthy by potentially limiting the spread of disease from pets to people, for example, Rabies, Leptospirosis, and Typhus.

It is very rewarding work-connecting to people through their pets brings us joy, as well as pride that we are making a difference in our community. It is great to see how SVO is providing a portal to better health for both pets and their owners.

What are some of the most significant challenges?

Sadly, there are not enough social and mental health services to keep up with the increasing demand-we just don’t have enough spaces to send people to for treatment.

What are your greatest needs as a young organization?

Our organization desperately needs more veterinarians and licensed vet techs to help provide service to clients in need. Having experienced volunteer social workers would improve our effectiveness, and we also need volunteers to help with marketing, grant writing, etc.

Sometime in the near future, we hope to be able to open a clinic so we can provide spay and neuter services for pets, we currently have over 180 pets waiting for this essential service! We would also provide dental services for pets in need. Anyone want to run a capital campaign?!?

For more information, to donate, or to run a capital campaign! Visit Seattle Veterinary Outreach, a 501c3 non-profit

The Senior Center is located in the southernmost building on the Shoreline Center campus, 18560 1st Ave NE, facing NE 185th.


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