You can’t miss St. Stephen’s,” laughs Nancy Brown, the manager of community outreach for PAWS Chicago, the city’s largest no-kill animal shelter.
She’s referencing St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Englewood—a massive, red brick building that rises far above the surrounding residences and the P.E.A.C.E. Community Center across the street. Standing at the top of the church’s narrow concrete steps at the corner of 65th and Peoria, one can see nearly two blocks in either direction. The church is impossible to miss, just part of the reason its basement was chosen as the headquarters for the PAWS Englewood Outreach Center, which held its grand opening on Thursday, October 10.
The “synergistic relationship” that PAWS built with the church’s community is another reason it decided to operate its Outreach Center there, according to Brown.
“We wanted to talk to the people who went to this church and offer them our [PAWS For Life] package and talk to them about what their needs are,” said Brown. “We were always here, showing up and coming to some of the services. We got involved in their programs. They have a back to school program that a lot of our volunteers donate backpacks to, and they have a prom and people donated dresses and clothes.”
Brown ushers me through the expansive, dimly-lit basement of St. Stephen’s, leading us into a much smaller and brighter office space equipped with computers, scales for large and small pets, and an assortment of medicine and veterinary fluids. In the office, Brown tells me about the impact PAWS has already made in Englewood and Back of the Yards over the past five years, and how this permanent outreach center will be able to further serve both the residents and pets of both neighborhoods.
That outreach begins with understanding the needs of the community that PAWS serves. “We meet people where they are,” said Brown. “We understand that a lot of the people we want to reach don’t go to our outdoor events, even though that’s there for them. They don’t have internet, so we door knock, and that’s how we started in 2014.”
That year, the PAWS For Life program began as a way to offer free veterinary services to people and their pets in Englewood and Back of the Yards, while also building relationships within those communities. PAWS conducted research that found that seventy-five percent of pets in these neighborhoods had never seen a veterinarian, and ninety-five percent were not spayed or neutered. Additionally, these communities are a “pet desert,” with pet care all but inaccessible for residents who face financial and transportation barriers. There are no veterinarians in Englewood or Back of the Yards, and the closest pet store—which specializes in tropical fish—is nearly four miles away from St. Stephen’s, on 86th and Ashland. The closest store that carries products for all pets is a Petco, nearly six miles away on 95th and Western in Evergreen Park.
The free PAWS For Life package attempts to address that inequity. It includes a spay or neuter surgery, vaccines, microchipping, ear cleaning, and nail trimming for cats and dogs. Access to additional services, such as vet check-ups and a pet food pantry, only require that the owner and their pet are registered with PAWS, they reside within the 60621 ZIP code, and, if medically possible, their pet is spayed or neutered.
“People can’t just walk up from any part of Chicago with an unaltered [pet] and get services. Our mission is to extend the ‘no kill’ mission of PAWS Chicago,” said Brown.
Over the past five years, PAWS For Life has served the pets of 60621 with their mobile spay & neuter clinic—which Brown affectionately refers to as the “Gus Bus”—and veterinary house visits. Of the more than 16,000 cats and dogs that PAWS spayed or neutered across the city last year, the outreach team in Englewood brought in twenty percent of those pets; that’s more than 3,000 cats and dogs. In 2018, PAWS also donated 25,307 pounds of food to 3,529 Chicago pets through its Pet Food Pantry.
“We’re strength-based; what does the community have and what does the community need in order to be successful in terms of resources?” asked Brown.
Now, with a permanent outreach clinic at St. Stephen’s, PAWS will now be able to widen the accessibility of their services and bring community pet care to Englewood and Back of the Yards.
Community medicine involves both veterinary medicine and wellness checks. When PAWS was only doing house visits, their veterinarians weren’t always equipped to fully treat every pet; it was impossible for them to carry all the necessary medicine, fluids, and equipment they could possibly need with them at all times. Pets in serious condition often had to be transported to the Lurie Clinic in Little Village, and pets whose illnesses were not as dire would have to wait a day or two for the vet to come back with the necessary supplies.
Now, pet owners registered with PAWS can make appointments to receive veterinary services and bring their pets in for wellness checks, in addition to receiving the free PAWS For Life package of services. A physical center also allows the community to congregate and build relationships at events hosted by PAWS, such as regular pet food pantries and outdoor cat shelter builds.
At the pet food pantries, registered pet owners wait outside while volunteers look them up in the PAWS database. Owners receive a slip of paper with the number and type of pets they own (e.g. one dog, two cats) and then can receive food and select toys, bowls, and even clothes for their pets. Other events, like a recent shelter build held on October 26th, engage the community by gathering volunteers who build shelters for outdoor and feral cats. For Brown, whose two goals as manager of the outreach team are to build relationships with pet owners and share information, being able to host events is the perfect way to spread information and engage the community, even if some pet owners aren’t necessarily interested in the services PAWS offers.
“We want to build a relationship,” said Brown. “ We meet [pet owners] where they are. I’ve had some really good conversations with neighborhood breeders, people who swear they’ll never neuter their pet. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to them; they’ve still valuable and part of the community. That context is the most effective. I’m trying to build a relationship with you and if you never neuter your animal, I will always speak with you and if I have some information to share, I will always do it … If you change your mind, this offer is still good. We’re still here for you.”
Nikki Roberts is a senior journalism student at DePaul University. She writes about underground Chicago music and feminist pop culture, and enjoys reading hyper-local reporting on Chicago and its neighborhoods.