"When it comes to tackling San Francisco's entrenched panhandling problem, City Hall has tried just about everything," says Heather Knight at The San Francisco Chronicle. "But it's never tried puppies — until now." On Aug. 1, the city is scheduled to launch a new program, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos (aka WOOF), that will pay panhandlers to take care of abandoned dogs as long as they pack up their cardboard signs and stop begging on the streets. Bevan Dufty, the city's homelessness czar, says it's a "win-win for the panhandlers and the puppies — even if it may prompt eye-rolls at first." Here, a guide to San Francisco's unusual plan to fight poverty:
How does WOOF work?
Under the program, panhandlers will receive $50 to $75 a week to adopt a dog from a shelter. The panhandlers will receive training sessions, and the city will provide them with "all the dog food, toys, leashes, and veterinary care they need," says Knight. The dogs will be chosen from those that are the least likely to be adopted, either because they're too rowdy, fearful, or otherwise unsocialized, with the hope that the panhandlers will make the dogs more human-friendly. After two to six weeks, the panhandlers can choose to return their dog in exchange for another one or adopt the one they have.
Can any panhandler qualify?
No. Panhandlers will be screened to ensure that they're not homeless — city officials say the bulk of panhandlers live in government-funded housing, but make money by begging. Applicants must also show that they're mentally stable without a history of violence. And, of course, the panhandlers will have to stop panhandling. "The 'Look I've Got a Puppy!' approach has been a favorite move of those looking for a handout in the past," says Andrew Dalton at SFist, but city officials say any WOOF participant caught begging with a dog will be booted from the program.
Is San Francisco's begging problem really that bad?
Yes. A full 25 percent of "visitors polled said their biggest complaint about the city was encountering the homeless people and panhandlers — eclipsing responses about the weather and traffic," says Maria L. LaGanga at The Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, the number of abandoned dogs has spiked, with shelters "receiving 500 more dogs per year" than before the recession, which made pet ownership less affordable, says Knight.
What do critics say?
City officials are "aware of the painful eye-rolling that comes with the announcement," says Dalton. It seems like a classic bleeding-heart liberal approach to a social problem — and the city isn't doing itself any favors by calling WOOF participants temporary guardians. ("The words 'pet' and 'owner' are frowned upon in San Francisco," says LaGanga.) City officials, however, are dead serious about WOOF. "I'm tired of pushing people around," says Dufty. "You can make it difficult for people to panhandle, but ultimately they're just going to go do it somewhere else. Why not try to meet their needs for income in a way that helps the city and its animals?"