Brian Denson holds his dog, Betty, as she is examined by Dr. Vanessa Padilla.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Project Street Vet’s mobile veterinary office brings free care to pets of Santa Cruz’s unhoused

Although the Santa Cruz County branch of Project Street Vet has been operating for only about eight months, veterinarian Vanessa Padilla and her team of volunteers have provided care and essential medicine to nearly 80 pets of the unhoused community in the county.

On an overcast Friday morning in Santa Cruz, veterinarian Vanessa Padilla and four volunteers ride in a black Honda Ridgeline pickup toward the outfield fence of Harvey West Park’s main Little League baseball field, where they had passed out flyers about their services the day prior.

Michelle Cacchiola approaches from her van just a few parking spaces over, where she lives with her 14-year-old pit bull mix, Puppy. Her dog needs some routine shots — rabies, parvovirus and kennel cough. Padilla opens the truck bed and rummages through the stacked boxes that she equates to a game of Tetris.

Padilla works full time as a veterinarian at Watsonville’s East Lake Animal Clinic and volunteers at least one day a month with Project Street Vet, a nonprofit that provides free veterinary and emergency care to the pets of people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of becoming unhoused.

Puppy’s sweet, playful demeanor takes a back seat to anxiety as the needle nears her side. She trembles, but with the help of Cacchiola and Padilla’s soft words of reassurance and gentle petting, does just fine. Once Padilla and veterinary technician Mayra Rodriguez finish administering shots, they send Cacchiola and Puppy off with a goodie bag with treats and enough tick and flea medication to last three months.

Cacchiola gives Padilla a warm embrace before heading back to her van. “You guys are great, it’s so nice of you to come out and do this for everybody,” she said. “Thank you so much.”

Michelle Cacchiola and her dog, Puppy, wait for Dr. Vanessa Padilla to finish checking her pulse and lungs.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That sense of gratitude is one of the best parts of the position for Padilla, who immediately noticed the need for accessible animal care when she moved to Santa Cruz from New York five years ago.

“Walking around downtown, I could see a lot of people experiencing homelessness with dogs and other pets,” she said. “I really wanted to help out as much as I could.”

Southern California-based Project Street Vet was founded in 2020 by Dr. Kwane Stewart, who spent a decade volunteering his time providing free veterinary services in cities around California prior to the project’s launch. But in Santa Cruz County, the service is just taking its first steps.

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Padilla reached out directly to Project Street Vet in fall 2022 to see if the organization could set up a chapter in Santa Cruz County. The Santa Cruz County location officially launched at the start of the year, adding to Project Street Vet’s teams in San Diego, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando and Webster in Florida.

The New York-based pet insurance company, Fetch, is one of Project Street Vet’s partners and its largest supporter. Last year, Fetch raised $316,000 for Project Street Vet — a main reason the project was able to expand to Santa Cruz and other locations around the country.

On Friday, Padilla brought a team of four volunteers to various areas in the county, including Harvey West, Housing Matters’ Santa Cruz campus and the area around Natural Bridges State Beach, where some people reside in their vans. Mayra Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez also work at East Lake Animal Clinic as veterinary technicians. Daniel Cosio works at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, and is also Padilla’s fiancé. Stephen Johnson, a friend of Cosio’s, works at Auto Care Towing in Santa Cruz and has helped the group identify areas in need within Santa Cruz city limits. All five team members volunteer at least one of their days off each month, traversing the county to seek out people with pets in need of care.

Nick S. and his dog, Dasha, wait for their turn outside the Housing Matters campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The team parked across the street from the Housing Matters campus on Coral Street and invited those with pets to catch them up on vaccines, quick checkups and any common medications they might need. Many unhoused people with pets struggle to access medicine like flea and tick prevention, which is why Padilla sends each patient away with a multimonth supply.

Although the mobile vet clinic is still a bit of a work in progress for Padilla and her team, it’s clear that there is a demand for their service. Within about 15 minutes outside of Housing Matters, a queue of at least 15 individuals and their dogs of all shapes and sizes had formed behind the truck bed.

Niki Brightwell, who brought her two dogs for routine vaccinations, said that Project Street Vet is a huge positive for the unhoused community.

“This is the first time I’ve had access to free vet care,” she said, emphasizing the difficulty of having two dogs while homeless. Her partner died several months ago, leaving her to take care of both. Making sure they stay active and healthy while taking on the burden of getting food and medicine for them is a daunting task, she said: “I wasn’t homeless until last year around Thanksgiving, and having both of them is just so much.”

Niki Brightwell and her dog Bobo standing next to the Project Street Vet truck.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Her sweet gray pit bull, Bobo, was in good health, aside from a small, dime-sized wound on his forehead. Brightwell had been regularly applying antibiotic ointment, and Padilla offered the small amount of ointment she had available. She said that not having more case-specific supplies available — like medication for skin conditions and topical solutions — is one of the biggest challenges.

“For something like that I’ll either get it from my job, or I’ll contact Project Street Vet and see if they can send supplies,” said Padilla, adding that many of the items in her truck are self-purchased or donated by supporters through the team’s Amazon wish list — a list on the massive e-commerce site with the things she needs most. “I’m still working out the kinks to see exactly what works, and if I’m missing anything.”

To help with that, each person who uses Project Street Vet’s service fills out a form with their name and contact information, and space for the team to note any outstanding issues or reasons for future follow-ups. That way, Padilla can keep track of which pets she’s treated and what they might need the next time her team is out in the field. She has provided care to 70 to 80 pets since the start of the year.

Dr. Vanessa Padilla and veterinary technician Alex Rodriguez fill out paperwork for one of their patients.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“If I don’t have something, I can contact them when I do, and come back and give them what they want,” she said, adding that she sees a high incidence of ailments like fleas and ear infections, likely due to increased exposure to the elements. “Access to full care is often not feasible for any pet owner, much less those experiencing homelessness.”

Padilla notes the strong relationship between the unhoused population and their pets. “I definitely think that relationship might be valued even more in this circumstance,” she said. “The bond can appear stronger than you see with other pet owners because of their mutual support for each other.”

The team eventually hopes to expand its services beyond Santa Cruz County, perhaps to San Jose or Salinas, Padilla said, though such efforts will take time to coordinate.

Daniel Cosio of Project Street Vet.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We just started this, so we’re focusing on Santa Cruz County right now, but we’re looking to find places that we see the most need,” said Alex Rodriguez.

Although Padilla and her team have packed schedules, juggling their full-time jobs and Project Street Vet volunteering as often as they can, the volunteer work is a welcome diversion from the everyday grind, said Padilla.

“It almost feels more satisfactory. It’s definitely different from a clinical setting, but everyone is so thankful and nice,” she said. “I’m just glad to help out as much as I can and to see the dogs, no matter where they’re at, still love the same no matter what.”

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