The 49-year-old spends his free time driving around the state in search of homeless people with animals who might be in need of medical attention.
Dr. Kwane Stewart had no idea a day volunteering at a soup kitchen would bring him face-to-face with his life's calling. What was supposed to be an exercise in teaching his young son the importance of giving back, became the start of a decade-long mission to provide free healthcare to the pets of homeless individuals on the streets of California. Today, the 49-year-old spends his free time driving around the state in search of homeless people with animals who might be in need of medical attention. His role as "The Street Vet" has taught him a valuable lesson: these animals offer more than companionship to their owners. They also give them love, hope, and security.
According to CNN, Stewart had been helping ill-fated animals long before he became "The Street Vet." Growing up in New Mexico, he spent his childhood trying to rescue stray animals and dreaming of beaches. This dream eventually brought him to California where he practiced veterinary medicine and ran an animal hospital before becoming the county veterinarian for Stanislaus County in Modesto, California. However, when the Great Recession hit the U.S. in 2007, Stewart realized that he needed to do a lot more.
"Modesto got hit especially hard, it was ground zero for California as far as job loss and home loss, and people were just dumping their pets in shelters," he revealed. Realizing that many people were forced to relinquish their pets simply because they couldn't afford their medical care, Stewart came up with a plan to help them. "That was the moment for me career-wise that was enlightening. Up until then, I'd been practicing high-end medicine for clients who could pay for everything. But suddenly I was thrown into this economic war and people couldn't even afford to help their pets."
On a whim one day in 2011, Stewart set up a table at a soup kitchen with his son and girlfriend. "About 25% of our homeless population own a pet, and I knew that if I set up a table at a soup kitchen I could help a small group of animals. So that’s what I did. I called over anyone who was holding their pet and told them I’d take a look and vaccinate or treat their pet if I could," he told GoFundMe. "Before I knew it, I had a whole line. There was something about it that I loved. I did it one more time before I decided to just take it to the street and walk to homeless people instead of waiting for them to walk up to me."
According to TODAY, ever since that life-changing moment, Stewart has spent his spare time wandering the streets—usually in his hometown of San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as Sacramento and San Francisco—in search of homeless people, hoping to offer free vaccinations and veterinary care to their pets. "I love the work. I do it because it’s hugely rewarding to me, spiritually. I’m just very fortunate to be living out my dream to be a vet in the first place," he revealed. However, not every individual he approaches in the street believes him when he offers help. Suspicious of his motives, many have turned him down and Stewart fully understands why.
Having seen people spit at the homeless and throw food out the car window at them while yelling, Stewart knows how hard it might be for someone to trust the stranger offering to help their pet. However, when they do accept his help, everything changes. "As I examine their animal and really give focus to their animal — not them — they just begin to open up. Some of the things these people have gone through that they’ve shared with me, it’s remarkable," he revealed.
Stewart pays out of his own pocket for the treatment of most of the pets he encounters. However, when he runs into animals with severe issues such as tooth decay or illnesses that need treatment at a veterinary hospital, he turns to GoFundMe to cover their surgeries and invasive procedures. Over the course of the past nine years, he has treated about 400 animals with allergies, skin and ear infections, flea infestations, bad teeth, and even arthritis. He has also come to realize that almost everything he thought he knew about homelessness wasn't true.
"I had my own prejudgments, like a lot of people, about homeless people before I started doing this work. You just make assumptions about their story without even knowing anything about them. You learn very quickly that you have no idea what put them there. It could be something like job loss which leads to bad credit, so they can't get an apartment, and these moments snowball quickly," he said. "These homeless people take care of their pets even better than we do. When they own a pet, it engenders this generosity. They always make sure their pet is fed. Medically is where they need help."
"Above all else, I've learned that homelessness can be solved if we really want to solve it," The Street Vet noted. "This is of our own creation. We've been putting Band-Aids on it for so long, with a free meal here and there, but there's not really a foundation to get them off the streets and keep them off the streets."