Monday, July 2, 2012

WOOF is great but it's irrelevant to begging.

Trying to stop panhandling with puppy care jobs is economically clueless and fails to recognize that people are different from each other. It's like pretending that college graduates who have a chance to teach grade school won't grow up to be hedge fund managers or car salesmen.

You've probably heard of WOOF. As explained in this SF Chronicle story, San Francisco homelessness czar Bevan Dufty is proposing that formerly homeless people who live in supportive housing could foster pound puppies at their homes in exchange for a stipend of $50 to $75 per week. People entering the program would have to pass some kind of background check -- how careful isn't clear. And they would have to agree not to panhandle, with or without the dog.

At the core of the proposal is a pretty neat idea: to set up a dog fostering program as a way for unemployed and possibly lonely residents of supportive housing to make a little extra money. That sounds really nice for all concerned. And it's great that part of the plan is for some of the people who start out in fostering to move on to kinds of professional pet-care work that would make some real money.

Where it goes wrong and insulting and harmful is in the attempt to force a connection to the prevention of panhandling by residents of supportive housing.

I mean, look, lots of different people live in supportive housing. A small fraction are in the business of panhandling. Most aren't. Why should someone who doesn't panhandle in the first place be asked to promise not to?

Anyway, modest opportunities in the gentle, unworldly, underpaid profession of animal care are not going to end the challenging, ancient and necessity-driven profession of panhandling. Anyone who takes on the time-consuming care of a puppy for a max of $300 per month either will be planning to do the work honestly for love rather than money, or will be planning simply to take the money and neglect the animal. So, treating the dog care gig as primarily about money would be dumb in the first case and dangerous in the second.

Anyone who simply wants money can make it more easily panhandling. Considering especially that the dog care stipend would be earned income paid on the books, above the table, and therefore would be partly deducted from disability or County Adult Assistance Program benefits. For example, a recipient of Supplemental Security Income who had $300 per month in earned income would get to keep $192.50 of it.

I mean, yes, it's wonderful to set up lonely unemployed people with stipends to care for dogs from the city's overcrowded animal pound. It's wonderful that an SRO resident featured in the initial news report, Matt Traywick, has been able to take in a shelter dog named Charlie who makes his life richer. It's even more wonderful that someone in Mr. Traywick's position, living on a tight budget, might get some help with the cost of care in return for taking a dog off the shelter's hands. But does Mr. Traywick deserve the newspaper's implications that he would be out panhandling if he didn't have a dog, or that he's only likely to care for his dog if he's paid to?

Lots of people who know better seem to be swallowing this idea whole. I can only guess they're feeling too happy-woogly -- Ooh! Look! Puppies! -- to step back and think WOOF over.

The sensible and respectful thing is to go forward with the dog care program but to drop the specious attempt to connect it to panhandling. There's just really no reasonable connection between the two professions.

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