Episode 139 – Angela Hopson

Angela Hopson

Angela Hopson

Angela Hopson is the Executive Director of “Street Outreach Animal Response Initiative” (SOAR), an innovative non-profit that works with humans and their pets, experiencing crisis like homelessness, medical or mental health emergencies, domestic violence, or abject poverty. SOAR uses the human-animal bond to remove barriers to accessing help, and they help people get engaged in services, so humans access the care they need, and person and pet can be healthy and stable.

Angela is formerly a homeless person herself and founded SOAR after graduating from law school and taking a position as a street outreach professional who worked with humans living on the streets experiencing homelessness. She saw there was an animal need that wasn’t being met, and that humans weren’t getting services they needed for fear of losing their pet. Angela shares her home on average with 10 dogs and 30 cats, and one very loud macaw.


Website: https://www.soarinitiative.com/
Facebook: 
https://www.facebook.com/SOARindy/ 

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Hey, Angela! Welcome to the program. Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to have you and to talk to you and to learn about the SOAR Initiatives. So why don’t you kind of give us the back story and how you came to this point today? I actually am a formerly homeless person. I went to college in hopes to kind of improve my employment outcome. Just basically $8.50 an hour instead of $8 an hour and found I’m really good at it. And while I was there, in undergrad, I worked for a program,  that helps students that are like me, formerly homeless and impoverished, former foster youth, people with physical and mental disabilities. And I help them to get a degree. I went on to law school because I wanted to help the community. I wanted to make an impact. I thought that law was going to be the way, but you find out pretty quickly in law school that things are a little more trickier than your hopefulness. So when I graduated, someone that I hired as a mentor in that previous program, knew of my homelessness and asked me to come work at a place called Horizon House, which is a day shelter in our city. So I started on their Street Outreach team and started going to the homeless camps, where people experiencing homelessness live and saw that there are animal needs. And there were a lot of people who are living on the streets who had pets, mainly cats and dogs. And we had no services in our city for those pets, at the time. And so my boss asked me to try to kind of come up with a solution, and that’s when we started. We really started very small, taking out little gallon ziplock bags of food and flea meds and kind of grew from there. Wow, Now, how many years ago was that? That was in 2014. So it’s been, what, six years now. Wow, that’s quite a while.

What is the situation like there? I mean, you’re in Indianapolis, right? So tell us a little bit more about the community and the homeless population. Sure we have, on our pick count, we will have anywhere from 2 to 3000 individuals that will be marked as homeless each year. However, that doesn’t count everyone. And the interesting thing about pit counts is that it requires that the person experiencing homelessness is actually physically, in a location that you’re observing, in order to count them. So a lot of the county will count people who are in shelters and known camps if the people are home. We initially started working with what we call chronically homeless folks, so that would be people who have been on the street for a year or longer, and when we first started, some of those individuals had been on the streets for 5, 6, 7 years. It’s interesting because homelessness is different in each community, but there are some similarities. A lot of people could be found living by rivers or railroad tracks and tend to be closer to the city, where services may be shelters. Maybe where feedings may happen. Although our work does serve surrounding counties and some of those are more rural where there aren’t really great homeless services in those communities. So people are really kind of struggling to look different. So people may live in tents, they may sleep on the ground, with just a sleeping bag. They may be in abandoned buildings or their cars. Sometimes the cars run. Sometimes they don’t. Homelessness just looks very different, depending on the individual circumstances and what barriers they’re facing.

 Now, how does this work then? So you guys kind of go out into those areas, right. So you know where people are and you go out there and you kind of tell them about you and offer to help. We have a few programs and one of those is our Street Outreach Program. So we have teams, usually of two people or more, that go out to the community. We have two ways that we respond to help. One of them is from referrals. So we get referrals from hospitals, social service agencies, domestic violence shelters, police officers, people of the community and people themselves who are experiencing homelessness. And we get those requests for help, and then we respond to those. Then we also go out and just visit camps, that we know of or that we’ve heard of and kind of just survey and meet the people. Our main goal, when we go out, is to just make the introduction and let them know who we are and how we can help. Our goal is to connect individuals to services that may help them. So, like if we have John and we meet him and he’s got a little dog, we may find out through the second or third meeting that John is really struggling with mental health or he has a severe infection and is not enrolled with a medical provider. We may find out they’re really struggling with food, and so then we find the appropriate resources for John and kind of link all of those to him. So he has wraparound services for care.

Then we also provide care for the pet so we’ll do spay/neuter, vaccines, routine and urgent care. We’ll provide any pet supplies that you can think of, minus crates. We don’t do crates for the people living outside. But we’ll do leashes, collars, food, flea meds, medications and things like that. Our goal is just to promote the better health of both persons and pets, and help them on their transition from homelessness, hopefully to housing.

 Yeah, no, I’m sure one of the more controversial topics that you deal with people is, you know, why somebody that’s homeless has a pet, right? Sure, it was really hard in the beginning when we started this, both because I think that people who are very passionate about animals in the animal welfare community were skeptical about the care that pets may receive while living on the street and then also from the Social Service Agency. The reason why we have grown the way we have is because a lot of our humans will not access the care they need, to get healthy or stable, because of their pet. They’re scared to lose that pet. And so, in the beginning, we started this Social Service Agencies really didn’t respect what we did because they thought, you know, John, should just get rid of that dog and then he could go to the hospital. This is silly. He’ll die if he doesn’t go to the hospital. He just needs to let the dog go. But that’s not the case, right? If you think about your own pet and you had a crisis and you didn’t have support, you would not want to give up those pets just because you were having a crisis. For a lot of the people that we work with, we find that the pet is the most important aspect in their life, and we do find that care is really good. It’s no different than the folks who we work within our house. We also branched into doing outreach into homes as prevention, and we actually find a lot of our people on the street do tend to take better care of their pets, than some of the individuals that we work with that are housed. They are with their pet 24/7. They’re walking them all over. They are keeping them warm and dry and sometimes feeding them, instead of feeding themselves. So even I have grown. And some of my volunteers have grown in the way that we think about humans with pets that are vulnerable. No, I appreciate that. And I love the fact that you share. It’s like that human-animal bond, right? And the fact that you know, you think about your own pets and a lot of these people have become homeless, hopefully, as you mentioned, temporarily, just do this among foreseen circumstances and your, you know, separating them from the one that they love, is not the right way to do it. 

Not at all, no, we’ve actually found that working with people, we started this and we were just providing care for pets, right? That was my role and I was going out and naively, maybe I was just trying to make sure that the pet was taking care of. But what we found is that people started to trust us more, maybe, perhaps than some other clinical providers, because we were taking care of their pet, without judgment. And so then they shared things with us and allowed us to help. And that’s kind of how we grew into the foster program and starting taking pets in. And then we use that human-animal bond, to get people engaged and help their progression through services. And so we found that people started getting housed, we would take on their pets. They could go to the hospital or substance abuse treatment or into the shelter. And then we will communicate with the caseworkers, from human service agencies, about how they were doing and allow visitation in between, so they could see their pet. Know their pet was coming back and people relaxed a little and let go of that fear and really engaged in the programs, that could help them and started getting housed. It is pretty exciting. Definitely the human-animal bond has some profound ways that it could help, problems that we see out here in the community.

 So I love the fact that you guys have evolved into this foster program, right, because I’m sure a lot of the reasons that people need fostering, it’s not a long term thing. It’s just to get them the services that they need. It’s really cool all of the ways I think that we have evolved from when we started. So, like with our foster program, we learned that certain barriers, barriers are things that owners faced, that may have led to their homelessness. We actually are realizing that homelessness is more of a symptom of other problems. It’s the end result of untreated problems that humans face. And so barriers, it may be substance abuse and it may be mental health, it may be divorced and losing a job. It may be being a caretaker, for an aging adult and not having work experience because your work experience was caring for that aging adult, and when they pass away, you have no financial support. There are different reasons why people end up homeless, and we have found that there are different time frames for different barriers.

 So, for instance, like with a lot of our veterans, we know that they will probably get safely housed and return to their pet, within about 60 to 90 days. Substance abuse treatment is usually going to take 90 days to six months, to a year, for real quality treatment, depending on what the drug of choice is. Domestic violence, depending with or without children, has a time frame. We’ve learned quite a bit about how to help better. In the beginning, we took some pets that we may not take now, not everyone is going to reclaim, right? But we keep improving based off of what we learn on how to help. 

Probably about 2018. We also started working with people who were housed because as our folks, who were homeless became successful and we returned their pets, then followed up with them. The first year after folks experienced homelessness is the most critical, where they may become homeless again. So, we were following up with folks in their housing, making sure that they didn’t need to pay for vetting or food for their pets and learning how to kind of stay stable on their feet. And those folks started to refer people in their community, who are also struggling. And then we realized that we started working with people who were housed that sometimes we can prevent homelessness. And so it’s really been a growing process. And as we learn things that work and sometimes things that don’t work, then we try to adjust what we’re doing to make a better impact. Yeah.

 One of the things I saw on your website that you guys were doing is a volunteer program to help with transport, to get the animals the services they need. Tell me a little bit more about that. We vet in three ways. One is that we’ll go out to where people live. So we have a lot of people that we’re finding that have pretty severe physical or mental disabilities. They do not have transportation, and even if they were financially able to afford transportation, they are physically unable to manage their pet and go out. So we do have a volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Brooks, she is amazing. She’s been with us for about five years and she’ll go out with us and we can handle some things like that. We also have volunteers that will take pets into the clinic. I have to tell you that one of the ways that we’ve grown is we prefer owners to go in, if they’re able. So if they’re able to get into the clinic, even if our volunteer transporter may pick that owner up and their pet. But we, like for the owner to have the experience with a veterinarian, in the veterinary process, so they could learn how to be assertive and engaged in their pets care. But we will provide transportation for folks that can’t otherwise get there. Then we’re also providing help with that veterinary care. Yeah, and I really love the fact, it sounds like you’ve learned a lot through these processes like you said that work and don’t. But you just keep going. You keep pivoting, you keep finding a way to have a greater and greater impact.

 I’ve been really thankful for the lessons that we’ve learned. I’ve been humbled quite a few times, but as we grow, we find better ways to help people. And sometimes in helping, we realize that we have enabled, right. And so then we have to come back, full circle. Transportation is one of those things, right? So initially our street outreach teams went out and they still do. We go out all the time, but some folks then wanted us to just come out and vet their pet. And so then we developed long term relationships with people who, especially people who have chronic medical or mental health issues. We will work with those people, over the lifetime of their pets. And so as part of that, we have to learn how to teach people also to be independent in that care. Yeah, it’s continual learning for you. And like you said, you have to adjust based upon the way that the people adjust, and if they’re becoming too dependent and they’re not moving through the process, then you’re adjusting the services that you’re able to offer. Absolutely, absolutely. We want people to be independent and self-sufficient as possible.

 Now I’m curious, are there organizations like yours across the country? How does this work? I love that in animal welfare, we’re seeing that increasing. When we first started this, probably year one or two, we reached out to, I think Leslie Irvine. She wrote a book called My Dog Eats First. We reached out to her and a group called With Cares in Wisconsin that at the university, situated in the vet school, that we’re doing some work, similar to ours. Now I’m seeing through some funding partners of ours, others that are starting to do fostering while both go to treatment, people who are helping do co sheltering and human shelters. A lot of groups that are starting to provide clinics for folks who are experiencing homelessness, even if that’s once a month, right where they provide who and basically exams and flea meds, things like this. So I am seeing the face of the animal welfare change, and it’s exciting because I think that how we saw, kind of the pet problem that we have in our shelters is by addressing the issues that humans face. Because pet overpopulation,  the overburdening of shelters, a human problem is not an animal problem. Yeah, absolutely agree.

 What’s been the response in the community to all this? It’s been amazing. So, in the beginning, there was a lot of resistance,I think. Both in animal welfare and human welfare but especially in these last couple of years, we’re able to demonstrate that what we do works, it’s been really positive. We have a lot of support, I’m thankful for and I am thankful for, especially all the human services and the animal services that support the work that we do. We could not make the impact that we have without the collaboration with those or, especially the human services. Because if we can’t help the person and we’re only addressing the pet, then we’re kind of in the same boat. Yeah, you’re just kind of patching it up, right? I mean, you’re not solving the root of the problem. Yeah, I really love the fact that you’re focused on trying to help the person to become self-sufficient instead of, you know, like you said, just taking care of the animals as you’re going. 

So what’s next for you? What is 2020? What does beyond look like? Where do you want to go? Oh, gosh. It’s so exciting. Last year we started doing some Human-Animal Help clinics, and so we set up in areas of the city that may have homelessness or some pretty serious, abject poverty. And we just set up tents and we have both medical doctors for humans and veterinarians. We also try to have social service type agencies that may meet the needs of that community. So you know, if there’s a lot of people who have served time in prison, we may have a reentry program. If we know there’s a lot of people who are unemployed, we may have a social service agency that specializes in that treatment program, things like that. And we’ll set up and we kind of just organically get the community in there and start making some connections. We’re also doing some vaccine clinics. We’ve had some really bad parvo in our communities. It doesn’t seem like generally in our community, whether we’re poor or not, that we’re doing a great job of vaccinating our pets or understanding it’s important. So we’ve been doing both door to door in some clinics.

 In terms of that, one of the most exciting things that 2020 is that we achieved getting our own facility. So that previously we operated out of my home, which has been challenging. But in late December early January, we did purchase a nice property, which we’ve already started housing animals. But we hope to grow it so that we can do both human services and animal services. Here our foster program is now housed here for the pets, and we hope to have human services here as well. Some Internet training, food and clothing pantry, and some social connectivity for people. So it’s pretty exciting. Pretty exciting stuff. Yeah, it’s really exciting stuff. And I really love your thinking and your vision with this. You’re not just saying, all right, we’re going to just do this like you just keep pushing and you keep pushing for more.

 You must be a very busy lady. What is an average week like for you? It’s not good, definitely not good. Especially right now as we’re growing and we’ve got this new place. So I think I told you prior to starting, that in my home we have 10 dogs and 30 cats, and those are pets that will all, except for a few, our pets. They’re mostly seniors 10, 14, 15 years old that we have taken in as part of just our care, like an Old Lady Sanctuary. And then now I have 12 dogs, three cats and a macaw. We actually have some more that are coming in. So until we get to the point where we have a plethora of volunteers that are here every day, I’m going back and forth between animal care, which is the handful of volunteers. Plus, we’re doing the case management. So a typical day for me would look like, I get up about 7 a.m. and I start the animals, here at the property and then may transfer to my house and see how the volunteers are doing there. And then we begin the work So it might be talking to the VA, about a veteran who’s been hospitalized, one of our local hospitals for someone that’s had a medical crisis. Somewhere about one, we do street outreach and go out to take out food. A lot of calling and talking to vets and coordinating vetting appointments and seeing what diagnostics and treatment need to happen. Towards evening, we do all the animals here again. We facilitate visits for owners from pets on different days, transporting pets to and from foster and to the vet. It’s busy. It’s been really busy. Yeah, it doesn’t sound like the same two things every day except for, of course, caring for the animals that are in your care. It’s not. It’s never the same day. And one thing I personally, I know my personality is a little different then most, one of the things I love personally is that it’s not the same thing every day. One of the hardest things I think is not being able to have a regular schedule. 

So, Angela, I am curious, as you look back upon this, is this where you thought things would end up? Not at all. I went to law school with this idea, creating a community initiative that could help folks that are experiencing poverty because that’s what I experienced. A lot of hardship, lived in a lot of horror areas, experienced homelessness for a long time, and then on and off. And I think that at that time I really believed that education was the key right. If people could improve their educational outcomes, then they would have better outcomes. However, doing this has taught me that people face barriers that education may not be able to always fix and I never intended this to be this big or to grow, had no idea. I’m really excited about the impact it’s making, and I look forward to what I continue to learn. I really love this, and I really think you guys are doing amazing work, Angela and I’m super excited that you came on today to talk with us. Is there anything else you want to mention before wrap things up? No, thank you so much for having me on your show. I really love what you do and giving different types of professionals the opportunity to share, really impressive. Thank you so much. People can go to Soar Initiative. That’s S O A R initiative.com or Facebook.com/ SOARIndy. And it was really great to talk to you. Thanks for coming on, you as well. Thank you so much. 

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