On a recent day on San Francisco’s famous Haight Street, tourists wandered in and out of shops peddling everything from tie-dyed shirts to Grateful Dead posters. Small clusters of homeless youths paced the sidewalks, with grimy black sweatshirts covered in patches, some managing the leashes of dogs.
Tattoo artist Christian James Wise leaned against a wall, recalling a day several months ago when he came upon a group of the street dwellers sitting on a sidewalk as he walked to work.
“As I was walking by I felt a really strong pinch at the back of my leg,” Wise said. “I looked down and there was a dog attached to me.”
Wise pulled up a photo of his bloody tattooed leg, taken just after the attack. He said the group fled immediately, leaving him with his wounds and hundreds of dollars in medical bills. He said another co-worker was also bitten by a street person’s dog within the last couple months.
“He had to have stitches. Everything went on him,” Wise said. “He had to pay out of pocket to get his hospital bills down. That’s crazy, we’re just here to work.”
Police said the homeless and their dogs have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on the street which is lined with small shops.
Officers said there were around 900 cases of dog bites across San Francisco last year. While the number of dog bites in the Haight weren’t exceptional, police said dogs under the care of street dwellers, presented a unique challenge.
“The issue in the Haight is that a lot of the dogs live in the park with their owner,” said John Denny, who runs the police department’s Vicious and Dangerous Animal unit. “They’re not safely confined. They’re tied to a tree or they’re used as protection.”
Denny said he received at least three reports of dog bites in the Haight in the last few months, and believed more go unreported. He said many of the transient dogs are untrained, have protection and territorial issues from living with their owners in the park.
“We have cases where people have just walked by a dog sitting on the curb with its owner and being bit,” Denny said. “And we can’t figure out why?”
One Haight Street business owner, who didn’t want his name used, said he was bitten on the arm last month by a pitbull while walking past a group of homeless people on the sidewalk. He rolled up his sleeve revealing a pair of jagged scars.
He said he tracked down the owner who was arrested, and the dog seized by Animal Control. But following a vicious dog hearing, the dog was returned to its owner.
“Most of the dogs are nice dogs,” he said. “But all it takes is one.”
Denny said dogs accused of biting people are quarantined for 10 days. After that he presides over a vicious dog hearing. In the case of the Haight Street businessman, he said he returned the dog to its owner because it had no prior reported incidents of biting.
“I can’t train aggressive out of a dog,” Denny said. “All I can do is make the owner understand that they have to keep the dog under better control.”
At the Western edge of Golden Gate Park, a woman who gave her name as Moana walked with her white pit bull named Owsley. She said she lived in the park, and kept the dog for protection and companionship. She said most of the transient dogs were well-behaved, but like humans, some were likely to be aggressive. She said it was unfair to single-out transient dogs.
“Dogs are protective and they’ll protect their owners,” Moana said. “That’s just the way that it is, whether it’s a dog out here or it’s a dog that’s not a transient dog.”
Another park resident who gave his name as Guy, said most of the dogs he’d come across in the area were friendly.
“We’re out here on the street with our dog,” Guy said. "Whereas someone that lives in a house, if their dog is aggressive it’s in their house.”
Wise said he doesn’t believe the blame lies with the dogs – rather their caregivers.
“It’s not the dog, it’s the people,” Wise said. “It’s the irresponsible owners who are doing this.”