On a Sunday in October, members of the unhoused community gather in the Big House Guitars parking lot on the corner of Cheshire Bridge and Lavista Roads. There, the Elizabeth Foundation, a nonprofit service organization, lays out two spreads—one with food, the other with warm clothes for the upcoming cold and wet winter. Veterinarian Dr. Kristen Schmidt is also there to help. Through the nonprofit Project Street Vet, Schmidt provides free veterinary care to pets of unhoused individuals in Atlanta. She often partners with the Elizabeth Foundation to bring care to the same place, and today is busy.
Here comes Harley (who doesn’t share her legal name), wheeling a wire dog crate with a blanket on top. Under the blanket, six pit bull puppies climb over each other. The puppies were born less than a month ago to a dog named Bella at an encampment near Peachtree Creek. Just two days before Bella gave birth, her owner passed away due to a drug overdose. Pet care has now become a community effort for the encampment, with Harley taking responsibility for finding the litter homes.
One by one, Schmidt takes the pit bulls from their cage to greet them and vaccinate them for rabies. Harley and Schmidt talk about where each dog will go. So far, three are without a home. Another of the Elizabeth Foundation’s clients expresses interest in adopting one, and Harley asks him questions about his living situation to ensure it’s a safe option. Harley herself also plans to take one—a gray puppy with white spots on his face. “I’ve become really attached to him,” she says, as “Smoke G” rests in her arms. The puppy broke his leg early on while playing with other, bigger dogs. Harley has taken care of him while he heals, but he still walks with a limp. “Someone named him Smoke G, but I like to call him Two Faces for now, for his two colors.”
Many Sundays, Schmidt drives into the city from her home in Helen to care for the pets of the unhoused. Her visits with the Elizabeth Foundation and at several encampments in the metro regularly turn into 12-hour days. Along with administering vaccines, Schmidt spays and neuters, provides leashes and collars, and drops off 50-pound bags of dog food at multiple encampments—all for free. Her care continues into the week, as she fields daily calls from unhoused owners who have a question or emergency. Schmidt gives out her phone number to each owner she meets so that they can call for anything, she says, and in the case of an emergency, she can order an Uber Pet to the nearest animal hospital. (Their sponsor, Fetch, covers the cost of vet treatment.)
“I can save a dog’s life in [my] clinic with an emergency surgery, but those owners sometimes are not nearly as appreciative as my pet owners on the street for something basic, like deworming,” says Schmidt. “The unhoused are always with their pets, so they care so much. Most of the time, their pets eat before they do.”
Schmidt had always been interested in veterinary work, but she decided to pursue it as a career after noticing unhoused individuals with pets on a visit to New York City. In high school, she started to hand out dog food on the streets of her native Philadelphia. After graduating in 2021 from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Schmidt moved to Helen to start her career at Cornerstone Animal Hospital. She also sought out California-based Project Street Vet. In the summer of 2022, the nonprofit approved Schmidt’s proposal for pet care in Atlanta, and she started the organization’s first branch outside of its home state.
The City of Atlanta’s 2023 Point-in-Time survey estimates the local unhoused population at 2,679 individuals. That number represents a 32 percent increase from 2022, with higher rates of unhoused families and youth and chronic cases of homelessness. Pets of the Homeless—a national organization focused on providing veterinary care to the unhoused—estimates that between 5 and 25 percent of the unhoused have pets.
“Kristen has been a great help to everyone,” says Tracy Thompson, founder of the Elizabeth Foundation. After getting off the streets herself in 2015, Thompson started her organization to help clothe the unhoused, assist them with obtaining new IDs, and find transitional housing. “For [the unhoused], there is a common bond of suffering and a common interest in surviving, so that’s what we try to help them do every Sunday when we meet,” Thompson says.
The Elizabeth Foundation’s outreach draws dozens of individuals from encampments in Atlanta. On this Sunday in October, Schmidt cares for 10 total dogs and puppies in the Big House Guitars lot, with more work to be done at encampments around the metro.
Schmidt checks up on Bella, the mother of the litter, and another pit bull, Blue, named for his bluish-gray coat. Blue’s owner, CeCe (who doesn’t share her legal name), looks on as Schmidt performs her routine exam. “Blue is like my kid, and it’s nice to have him as a constant,” says CeCe. After his exam, Blue trots over and sits in front of CeCe, until she offers him a roasted potato off her plate. “He smiles, cries, pouts. Blue just smiled at me the other day, and it made me smile.”
The dogs have also acted as security for both CeCe and Harley. “We’re always with them, so they’re very protective of us,” Harley says. “We don’t have to worry so much because they will let us know if anyone comes near.”
Over the last few weeks, CeCe has helped Harley with the litter, caring for half of the puppies at the encampment. They ask Schmidt about options for bathing the dogs that are more sanitary than Peachtree Creek, near the encampment. Schmidt decides to bring a kiddie pool on the next visit, as well as dog shampoo for bathing.
Soon, much of the pet care responsibility at their encampment will fall to CeCe, now that Harley has been approved for rapid housing through the City’s Continuum of Care—Partners for HOME program. Harley listed Schmidt and Thompson as references, and both spoke to her character and dedication as a pet owner. Harley will be allowed one dog to come live with her in rapid housing as emotional support. She has yet to decide between a puppy, like Two Faces, and one of her current dogs, like Lego, whom Harley took in after his home in an abandoned building burned down. But when she does move into the apartment, Schmidt will provide her with a crate and food; Thompson will help with the furniture.
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.