When Stacy Lempka pulls up in her red van next to The Night Ministry's Health Outreach Bus, she receives a warm welcome from guests, including the four-legged kind.
"They come and greet me as soon as I get to the sidewalk," said Lempka, a veterinarian who provides free basic health care for the dogs and cats of Bus guests in Humboldt Park. From the back of her van, she performs wellness exams, administers vaccinations, and offers preventive medicines and treatments.
It's estimated that 5 to 10 percent of Americans experiencing homelessness have an animal companion. For many, their pet is a main source of physical, emotional, and social support, providing protection, unconditional love, and another life to care for.
Lempka witnessed this bond firsthand when she was asked to see the dog belonging to one of The Night Ministry's clients six years ago.
"It was evident how much the owner loved his dog. He was willing to put the health and well-being of his pet over his own," she said. "I knew how important it was, from a social, psychological, and physiological stand point, to keep this pet healthy."
In Humboldt Park, many guests bring their pets back to Lempka for follow-up visits. "That has allowed me to get to know the specific needs of not only the pet, but of the owner as well," she said.
"I have learned how they acquired their pet, why they have given them specific names, and the tricks they have taught them. And I've heard personal accounts of how their pet helped them through some difficult times," she added.
"These clients face different challenges than those I see in an office, but their level of attachment and commitment to their pets is just as strong," she said.