San Francisco program pairs panhandlers with pound puppies

They're fighting like cats and dogs over beggars in San Francisco, with a new plan that pays panhandlers to care for unwanted strays. The program is called WOOF: Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos.

No dogs will go to homeless people on the streets, but rather to people living in city-funded supportive housing shelters who agree to stop panhandling. While the city hopes it will help two struggling groups, animal rights groups call the idea ill-conceived and dangerous.

"These puppies are emotionally disturbed or they've had bad experiences, and I think just pawning them off onto somebody who's already trying to make adjustments in a difficult life of their own is not a sensible thing to do," says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In a strongly worded letter to San Francisco City Hall, PETA said WOOF is playing "Russian roulette with these animals, allowing them to be used as lures or pawns for good behavior."

City officials are barking back.

"It's amazing to me than an organization that says that they want compassion for animals has so little compassion for people," says Bevan Dufty, San Francisco's director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, or HOPE.

Dufty argues panhandlers who qualify must agree to stop begging, and they will get paid up to $75 a week to foster troubled pups until they're ready to be adopted. For some, that could mean a raise. While earnings vary dramatically and there are no recent numbers from San Francisco, a 2007 survey of beggars in Las Vegas found the median income from panhandling was less than $50 a week. Dufty argues time spent with animal trainers will also reduce the euthanasia rate at the pound.

"I think there's tremendous potential to enable these dogs to be adopted and have a better outcomes for both the people and the dog," he said. “Why not try to meet their needs for income in a way that helps the city and its animals?"

Matt Traywick, 52, agrees. He lives in city-supported housing, has undergone job training and earns high marks from his landlord -- all requirements for the paid pet-partner program. About a year ago, he adopted Charlie, a fluffy dachshund-bichon mix.

As they went for a walk and chatted with neighbors, Traywick said Charlie has lifted his depression and forced him to get out of his single-room apartment.

"He's done a lot for my self esteem and self confidence," Traywick said.

But critics aren't convinced.

"We need to look after all living creatures properly, not sloppily. And this is slop," PETA's Newkirk said.

If it is successful, supporters hope the program will improve the city's image: A quarter of all visitors to San Francisco say their biggest complaint is encountering homeless people and panhandlers. Despite concerns from groups like PETA, the city is committed to a two-month, $10,000 pilot program, privately funded by a local dog lover.