A heart for four-legged friends of San Antonio’s homeless: Couple creates nonprofit to give health care to pet dogs of the homeless
In the cool afternoon shade, volunteer Amber Clark snipped gnat-infested fur from Gizmo, the small dog fitted with a plastic cone to keep him from nipping back during the grooming process.
Gizmo’s owner, James Finney, stood by patiently.
After the pooch was neatly shorn, volunteer Rob Martin stretched a purple sweater over the pup’s head and and fastened a red collar around his neck.
Finney, 43, wearing a ball cap with “Marines” embroidered above the bill, clipped a light blue leash lined with a pattern of white bones to Gizmo’s red collar.
He scooped up the dog in his arms and thanked the group for their time.
“I was thrilled,” said Finney, who is homeless. “A lot of us don’t have the money to take care of our animals.”
Clark and Martin are volunteers for Hope 4 Hounds, a nonprofit that offers free veterinary care at Communities Under the Bridge, formerly known as Church Under the Bridge, for pets of San Antonio’s unsheltered population.
On this particular afternoon, the new nonprofit attended to a pit bull and two chihuahuas, among others, at the church on the East Side.
Ross and Jill Powell, who founded the nonprofit, said services include health checks, vaccinations, and spay/neuter surgeries and microchips. They hold clinics every six weeks.
Microchipping the animals has had positive results. A missing dog was found because of the chip, and the owner chose to surrender it. The Powells found the dog a home within 24 hours.
The chip also enabled the nonprofit to reunite an owner with his dog who had been stolen and taken away from San Antonio on a train. The thieves jumped off the rails in Central Texas near Bryan-College Station where they left the dog.
Clark, the Powells’ daughter, drove to Bryan, retrieved the dog and reunited happy pet and owner.
The team, made up of 10 to 12 volunteers, has cared for 43 dogs to date. Most of the breeds, the couple said, have been chihuahuas. The small dogs are easily carried and don’t require a lot of food.
During the pandemic they have provided more than 1,500 pounds of donated dog food to clients at the clinics.
The nonprofit team includes their personal veterinarian Lisa Montoya-Espina and Paul O’Neil, a veterinary tech from Irving. Espina, 33, and her husband, Mark, 38, lent a hand at the recent clinic. The veterinarian said aside from the medical aspect, it’s nice to offer a service that’s beneficial for not only the pets, but their owners, too.
“As a Christian outreach program we’re here to show God’s love to our four-legged friends,” Mark Espina said.
O’Neil, 49, said the nonprofit’s mission aligns with his work for mobile vaccination clinics in Dallas and San Antonio. Wanting to volunteer, he found the nonprofit after a google search. His company has donated anti-tick and flea medications to keep their clients’ dogs healthy.
“Their pets mean everything to them,” O’Neil said. “When you’re homeless you have to do what you have to do. I’m glad there was something like this taking place. Hopefully we can do more in the future.”
Dianne Talbert, executive director of Communities Under the Bridge, said partnering with the nonprofit has benefited many of the people they serve.
“Just because their mommy and daddy are homeless doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have shots and everything,” Talbert, 64, said. “We’ll continue to do these to make sure their pets are taken care of out on the street.”
The group’s other partners include Canines for Christ along with PetShotz and the Callaghan Road Animal Hospital that both provide spay/neuter services.
The Powells are on the Canines for Christ national board and local chapter leaders.
For the past 18 months, Ross Powell has been the lead cook on the fourth Sunday of the month for Communities Under the Bridge. The church’s volunteers serve an average 220 people who are homeless each Sunday.
Among those who come for dinner, the couple met people who would feed their dogs before themselves.
Jill Powell recalled the story of one pet owner who moved off the street to live in a long-term hotel. Their dog, Elsa, wasn’t allowed in the room. The Powells put the dog in a foster home for three months. Now, the woman and her husband live in their truck so they can have their dog by their side.
“That’s the power of the animal’s influence,” Powell, 51, said. “We have a heart for the homeless.”
So in November 2019, the couple, both self-employed came up with the idea of Hope 4 Hounds. Thirty days later, the 501 (c) 3 was born.
The Powells, avid canine lovers, have five dogs of their own: Haley, Halo, Hollie, Mollie and Rocco. Four of the pets are rescues and one is a gift from their daughter.
According to Pets of the Homeless, 5 to 10 percent of Americans who are homeless have cats or dogs. The Powells estimated that 10 percent of the people living on San Antonio streets have pet dogs.
“It keeps people alive,” Ross Powell said.
The recent clinic wasn’t the first time that the nonprofit had tended to Finney’s dog. In March, they had to cancel their inaugural clinic because of COVID safety protocols. A month later, Gizmo and Artemis, a small shepherd mix, and four puppies were the first clients at the nonprofit’s first mobile clinic.
The exams took place from the back of the Powells’ Suburban, near the San Antonio Zoo.
The nonprofit’s founders knew Finney from a Christian assistance ministry event, downtown near Travis Park.
That spring day, sunlight reflected off the empty blacktop lot as the group, wearing masks and gloves, provided free vaccines and health checks along a wall of green foliage. Ross Powell acted as a scribe and filled out intake forms, documented the shots and results of heart worm tests. Jill Powell helped with the paperwork and held each canine after the veterinarian finished the exams. They provided masks to Finney and a companion.
“It was very rewarding,” Ross Powell, 61, said. “We were able to help these folks and their pets stay safe.”
Ross Powell said they are hoping to expand their services in the future.
They also hope to offer foster care for pets of men and women who are escaping domestic violence and work with a series of confidential fosters to hold on to pets temporarily with the goal of reuniting them with their owners when it’s safe.
The couple said only 3 percent of domestic violence shelters allow pets. Ross Powell said the only people who would know of the boarding would be the foster volunteer and the victim so the abuser couldn’t locate them.
“There’s a need to reach out to different pockets around the city,” Jill Powell adding, noting there are encampments of homeless across San Antonio. “We need to go to them rather than them coming to us.”