One Man’s Simple Gifts

In winter, L.A.’s skid row is 50 blocks of pure misery. Homeless men and women huddle in tents or under tattered cardboard awnings, dreading the storms that mean long nights spent in wet clothes, shivering and chilled to the bone. In 65 grim single-room occupancy hotels, those who can afford a cheap room head out to look for work each morning without even the solace of a cup of hot coffee. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the streets are empty of outsiders, unspeakably bleak and lonely, because free holiday meals are often served a day or two early so that volunteers can spend time with their own families.

Improvements here are measured in small mercies, and this year there are some. Staff and volunteers at Las Familias del Pueblo community center are handing out 1,500 blue tarps that can be tied to fences to keep the rain out, and waterproof drawstring bags to shield possessions. Women turned away from the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children for lack of room get sleeping bags, jackets and mittens. In six hotels, lobbies offer pots of free hot coffee. On Thanksgiving, in the 18 hotels operated by the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, residents gathered to prepare and share a donated meal.

A sign in the hotel lobbies said: “Harold’s Coffee Pot.” The tarps, sleeping bags and jackets all carried the same cloth tag: “A gift from Harold.”

Who is Harold? The short answer is that he’s Harold Edelstein, a rich man who died four years ago, benefactor of the Harold Edelstein Foundation. The full answer, set at the unlikely intersection of compassion and notoriety, is more complex. It is the story of how an old man’s generous instincts, and his attorneys’ convictions that their client deserved to be remembered, has created one of this city’s quirkiest, sweetest and–among those who work with the poor– most beloved charities.

Harold Edelstein passed through life nearly as unnoticed as the men and women his money now helps. He was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1909, came to Los Angeles with his family about 10 years later and grew up in the midcity.
He earned a degree in engineering from UCLA and served in the South Pacific during World War II. Engineering jobs were largely closed to Jews back then, so he became a land surveyor. Judging by photos and the recollections of friends, he was an attractive man, short and slight, with thick brown hair that silvered perfectly as he aged. He also was intelligent, charming and a ready conversationalist. But he was a loner, not particularly close to his brothers and their children, a hard-core bachelor who didn’t marry until he was 80–and then only briefly. He lived in a small apartment in Brentwood’s Barrington Towers and dressed casually. His luxuries were eating big steaks at The Palm and driving a Cadillac; his social concerns were overpopulation, hunger and homelessness. At Thanksgiving, he sometimes volunteered at one of the downtown missions.

In late 1999, when he was 90, he had a fender bender, left the scene and lost his driver’s license. He was devastated. Friends arranged for a homecare evaluation to see if he needed help in his daily life. During the nurse’s first visit, he began making a cup of tea for her–“I’m perfectly fine,” he assured the woman–then dropped to the floor. It was a stroke; he died two weeks later and was interred beside his mother at Home of Peace, the old Jewish cemetery in Boyle Heights. “Sweet” and “decent” are how longtime business associates who became friends describe him. You also hear “unpretentious,” “gentlemanly” and “ordinary … just a regular, ordinary guy.”

Except in one way. Through Harold Edelstein’s many years as a surveyor, he regularly bought property that he found at foreclosures and tax sales, bargain parcels in barren parts of Arizona, Nevada and the California desert. Eventually, suburban sprawl caught up. By the time he died in December 1999, he was worth more than $20 million.

“Harold and I first set up a charitable foundation in 1986, and I encouraged him to have the pleasure of giving money away himself,” says attorney Fred Simmons, who with Marvin Burns, also a lawyer, and financial advisor Marvin Rothenberg make up the Edelstein Foundation’s board of directors, officers and staff. “He did fund a few small projects. But even wealthy people are nervous about giving while they’re still alive. They want to be sure that as long as they’re around, the money’s there.”

When Harold died, though, it was a different ballgame. The mission statement that had been crafted for the foundation was almost ridiculously broad: Help the hungry and homeless and do something about population control, but do it directly, in ways that have immediate, maximum effect. No funding of construction, big staffs or bureaucracies. And within the larger landscape of philanthropy and need, the $20 million it had to spend wasn’t very large. (Most of the money given annually by California foundations comes from the top 2%, each of which has assets over $100 million. Several are worth more than $1 billion.) The board’s solution was one of rare common sense: It would try to fill charity’s gaps– provide, as Simmons puts it, “small but important things which, without us, there would not be.” And it would find out what small things were most needed by directly asking those who worked the streets.

The social service workers of Los Angeles County–the underappreciated armies striving to help the 1.6 million-plus homeless, hungry and poor, whose daily struggle is mere survival– could hardly believe the Edelstein Foundation was for real. For years, the government funding on which they depend had been shrinking, as had donations from individuals and other foundations faced with declining portfolios. Everyone was fighting over the scraps, most of which required jumping through endless hoops: writing grant proposals and voluminous reports, answering questions, proving what everyone already knew to be true, and too often being treated as if their years of experience didn’t count for much. And here was Fred Simmons, a puckish, chatty 75-year-old asking earnestly: “What do you want? What are you not able to do that you could with a little money?”

“We usually have to seek out funding sources,” says Leslie Friedman, director of the SOVA Food Pantry, a nonsectarian program of the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which provides groceries to about 3,300 people a month. “And many of those sources have agendas and are only willing to fund this or that. Fred came to us. All he wanted to know was, ‘Can I help you?’ It was like the clouds parting.”

Money went to help the struggling St. Vincent Meals on Wheels Program, which delivers food to the homebound elderly. Money went to buy 100 sleeping bags–and later, gloves, socks and rain jackets– for the Good Shepherd Center. “When we first mentioned the idea to the foundation, they were so enthusiastic,” marvels Sister Julia Mary Farley, who has been working with the homeless for more than 20 years. ” ‘What a great idea! Why didn’t we think of it!’ They said, ‘Put it in writing.’ I wrote a letter–and there came the check.”

Money went for emergency food vouchers that could be offered at a number of Jewish Family Service locations, and bus tokens, jackets and socks to be given away at its food pantries. Not that much went out from the foundation at first–maybe a few hundred thousand dollars–but waves of gratitude came back. Before long, another conviction about shaping the foundation grew: The gifts needed to be connected, somehow, to the manwho had made them possible. “Maybe I felt a touch of guilt when people kept telling me, ‘Thank you,’ ” Simmons says. “It was Harold who deserved to be thanked, to be known. He was a modest man, but he didn’t want to be forgotten any more than anyone does. I didn’t want to put his name on a plaque– there are buildings out there so covered with plaques they’d fall down if you took them off. People don’t read obituaries. You need something that catches the eye.”

That something became Harold himself. At its inception in 1986, the charity was named The Edelstein Family Foundation. Following its benefactor’s death, it was renamed the Harold Edelstein Foundation. By its second year of operation, money from the foundation came with a single request: Whatever benefit it supported had to be tied to Harold. After the foundation made a 10-year funding commitment, the SOVA organization added “Harold’s Pantry” signs at its facilities. At ONEgeneration in Van Nuys, which offers a senior center and adult and child day care, as well as meal delivery to homebound seniors, a red neon “Harold Cares” sign hangs in the main room. When staff worried that federal funding for the meals they delivered only covered Monday through Friday, Harold paid for frozen food that would last the weekend. “This meal is a gift from Harold–enjoy!!” says a small blue card, with an accompanying photo of Edelstein. At a San Fernando Valley shelter for battered women, a “Harold’s Treats For Kids” sign hangs near a refrigerator kept well stocked with healthy treats; a similar sign, in Spanish, hangs in the Las Familias del Pueblo community center downtown. In a mid-city homeless shelter for women and children, staffers now work in “Harold’s Office.” In the counseling office of a Childrens Hospital program aimed at helping teen mothers avoid a second pregnancy and reclaim their lives, a sign exhorts girls experiencing a financial emergency to “Ask Harold for Help”; funds are there to pay for diapers, clothes and bus fare, and job training is available at “Harold, Inc.”

Hokey? Absolutely. But nobody who gets Harold’s help laughs. Almost no one else, social service workers say, responds to their needs so quickly or shows such visceral, practical understanding of the realities they face. “We got stuck when the supermarket workers went on strike because our credit line was at Vons, and we couldn’t ask volunteers to cross the picket lines,” says Donna Deutchman, executive director of ONEgeneration. “We needed money to buy food right away. I called the Edelstein Foundation, and the check arrived in 24 hours.”

“No one else out there funds the little things,” says the Rev. Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, who has been working with skid row residents for decades. “And it’s almost always the little things that make a huge difference in someone’s life. A homeless person isn’t going to get a job because he has a piece of plastic tarp. But he won’t have to spend the night in the rain with his hands red and swollen with cold.”

“Does it matter that we’re able to offer some concrete assistance to teen parents who already are living marginally?” asks Dr. Curren Warf, medical director of Childrens Hospital’s High Risk Youth Program. “There’s nothing worse in any person’s life than to see their children go hungry or unclothed.
Does it make a difference that people can get diapers for their children or buy them food or pay the rent when they’re threatened with homelessness?
It makes a massive difference.”

This year, when some low-income families whose kids attend ONEgeneration’s day-care center received gift certificates to grocery stores “from Harold,” “they were stunned, moved to tears,” says Judy Hamilton, the center’s child-care director. “It was the first nice thing to come their way in a long time. And the first nice thing, maybe ever, that didn’t require them to apply, fill out forms and spend hours on hold.”

The Edelstein Foundation, which gave away around $750,000 in 2003, and hopes to reach $1 million a year, is dipping into principal and won’t last forever. Simmons hopes that “seeing how much you can accomplish with relatively small amounts of money” will inspire others. Certainly, he and the other board members, who grow positively gleeful when they talk of the snacks and mittens they’ve bought, have been altered by the experience of brokering Harold.

“Fred [Simmons] does the most, but we’re all looking for worthy projects,” says Marvin Rothenberg. “Marvin Burns found a place in Hollywood that helps runaway teens. I found one up north that feeds children. Because I’m a licensed securities broker, I’m always researching how we can make money. We don’t want to lose one penny of Harold’s money–it’s money we can use for the hungry and homeless.”

So after all the giving, promoting, cards and signs, do the people of Los Angeles now know the name Harold Edelstein? Maybe. “We’ve explained who he is to the children here,” says Alice Callaghan. “I think the more things are given away with his name, the more people will say, ‘Harold did this, Harold gave that.’ ” She smiles. “They probably won’t have a clue who he was, but I’m not sure that matters.”

“He’s a symbol,” agrees Sherry Kobayashi, director of case management at ONEgeneration. “Even if our clients don’t know who he is, they know that someone cares that they’re eating. That’s what matters: someone cares. Someone just happens to be Harold.”

The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused

 

 

The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.

“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?” 

First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.

These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food. 

Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”

Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero. 

Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed. 

The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.

“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”

At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge. 

He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.

Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”

 

For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series­—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel­—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.

Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way. 

“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)

“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.) 

Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.

“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies. 

Most Americans Have Pets. Almost One Third Can’t Afford Their Vet Care

Since mid-2020, more than a thousand low-income families have brought their sick and suffering pets to the nonprofit Pet Support Space, housed in a tiny Los Angeles storefront. One 14-year-old dog had a tumor that a veterinarian had quoted $5,000 to remove. A four-year-old pit bull had been vomiting for days, a cat’s painful bladder stones required surgery, a pug limped from the foxtail embedded in its paw. Skin and ear infections abounded. Neither the animals’ problems nor their owners’ inability to afford help for them was a surprise.

recent nationwide study found almost 28 percent of households with pets experienced barriers to veterinary care, with finances being the most common reason. In low-income households, the researchers found, financial and housing insecurity can increase the risks that animals will not receive the care they need. Sociologist Arnold Arluke, author of Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty estimates that 66 percent of pets in poverty have never seen a vet at all.

The “why” behind those numbers is complex. Of course, money is the primary problem. Veterinary care is expensive. A majority of practitioners work in for-profit clinics, consolidation in the industry has increased emphasis on profit margins, and vet prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. That has checkups starting at $50, dental cleaning going for $70-$400, and blood work and x-rays at $80-$250. If a dog breaks a leg or eats a sock, surgery costs begin at four figures.

High prices aren’t necessarily about greed. Michael Blackwell, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, is the chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) that was formed in 2016 to study this very problem. Veterinary training, he said, teaches vets to practice a “gold standard” of care, which means running every possible diagnostic test and pursuing every treatment option, even when a client’s budget is limited. (Many pet owners don’t know they can decline a recommended procedure, such as blood work, and even fewer are willing to decline care for fear of looking heartless.)

Some private vets offer struggling clients discounts, added Jeremy Prupas, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the City of Los Angeles, but they themselves carry an average of $150,000 in student loan debt, so they simply “can’t carry the immense existing need on their own.” Telling clients you can’t help them because they have no money is one of the leading causes of burnout in the veterinary profession, according to Prupas. Pet insurance might help defray costs but requires monthly premiums and comes with such a complicated array of deductibles, co-pays, caps, and exclusions that one how-to guide recommends hiring an attorney to review the policy. Credit cards designed for medical care financing, if one can qualify, can carry punishing interest rates as high as 26.99 percent.

Equally critical is a long-term failure on the part of the animal welfare movement to consider, much less prioritize, the needs of low-income pet owners. Since the 1990s, the rescue/humane world has poured vast amounts of funding and energy into cutting shelter euthanasia through adoption, but far less into helping those without money take care of the pets they have. “If you can’t afford an animal,” the thinking went, “then you shouldn’t have one.”

“Until recently, we focused on shelter-centric challenges,” acknowledged Amanda Arrington, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’s Pets for Life Program, which assists low-income pet owners. “There was a lot of judgment and making determinations on who was or wasn’t deserving of support and resources that was influenced by what I think a lot of society is influenced by, which is classism and racism. We conflated a lack of financial means and access with how much someone loves their pet or desires to care for it.”

In fact, owners can be punished because they can’t afford veterinary care — “most humane neglect cases stem from an inability to get care for a pet,” said Prupas. In Michigan, for example, failing to provide an animal with adequate care, including medical attention, is a misdemeanor that can carry 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. With a second violation, it becomes a felony.

The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true.

What exists for pet owners in poverty is a patchwork of low-cost care options, ranging from local efforts — such as Emancipet in Texas and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — to well-funded national enterprises such as Pets for Life, which operates in several dozen cities. The great majority, however, offer only basic services like sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatments. “We are not a full-service veterinary clinic and do not treat sick or injured pets,” warns one low-cost option on its website. Another suggests that needy people travel, since “vets in smaller towns may charge lower fees,” or start a GoFundMe. As a result, many types of care are largely unavailable: emergency care (by some estimates one in three pets will have an emergency need each year), management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, medication, dental care (dental disease affects perhaps 80 percent of older dogs), and the mercy of humane euthanasia (which can run $50-$300).

The final piece of the care gap is a practical and cultural disconnect. Because many economically challenged neighborhoods are “vet deserts,” with few if any practitioners, it’s not easy to find care, and reaching it can require wrangling an unhappy animal over distance and/or arranging private transportation. Keeping an appointment at an office with weekday-only business hours or a once a month clinic can mean losing a day’s pay. Paperwork raises the fear of immigration status inquiries. The veterinary profession also remains one of the country’s whitest: Just as people who feel alienated or unwelcome don’t utilize human health care options, pointed out Arluke, they don’t utilize care for their pets.

The result has been suffering: most directly for animals that remain untreated, die from what vets call “economic euthanasia” (putting an animal down because treatment costs too much), or end up in shelters. Fear of a looming vet bill, and the mistaken belief that all shelter animals receive medical care, is a prime cause of owner surrender.

But people pay, too.

Some sick animals can infect their humans. Roundworms, for example, can pass through contact with pet feces and cause lung, heart, and eye problems. Blackwell reports meeting an optometrist who practices in a low-income Florida community who has seen increasing numbers of children with roundworm larvae in their eyes.

The psychic toll is just as real. Families in poverty who love their pets and for whom “they offer an emotional core and possibly one of the only sources of joy” face “mental and emotional” devastation from the unimaginable choice of weighing that love against potential financial ruin, said Blackwell. Professor Katja M. Guenther, author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, called the rupture of an animal-human bond “a kind of community violence” in a 2021 webinar.

Change seems increasingly possible. Covid-19 and the country’s recent racial and economic reckoning has prompted humane organizations to examine their assumptions and biases about who has the “right” to a pet’s love, and, said Arrington, there’s increasing recognition that “racial and economic injustice really impacts animal welfare.” Meanwhile, AlignCare, a new program out of Michael Blackwell’s Program for Pet Health Equity, is trying to create a national model of something like Medicaid for domestic animals. Under the program, families already found to be struggling (because they participate in SNAP or a similar program) and who ask for help at a shelter or veterinary clinic will be signed up and paired with a veterinary social worker or support coordinator. They’ll then be directed to a veterinarian who has agreed to offer preventative, dental, and even critical care, for a reduced fee; AlignCare will pay 80 percent of the cost. After three years of pilot programs in 10 disparate communities, it’s taking on its biggest challenge yet, Los Angeles, where one in five people live in poverty.

AlignCare won’t offer “gold standard” care, instead emphasizing preventative, incremental, and cost-saving measures (such as offering telehealth appointments and limiting diagnostics that won’t change treatment options) when possible. But it will expand the human safety net to include the animals most of us now consider part of our families. And while the effort is currently funded by grants from Maddie’s Fund, the Duffield Foundation, and Petsmart Charities, Blackwell’s goal is “community ownership:” The combined involvement of local vets, city animal services departments, social service agencies, rescue and community organizations, pet food and product manufacturers, and affluent pet owner-donors can make the model self-sustaining.

There is no perfect solution for low-income pet owners who need help accessing veterinary care. But growing awareness of the problem is a big step forward. “What we call ‘animal welfare’ is changing,” said Lori Weise, whose nonprofit, Downtown Dog Rescue, runs the Pet Support Space. “The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true. People can’t afford care. Sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there; they themselves have never been in a hospital. As more people are brought into the system, we’ll see the first generation to get proper veterinary care.”

 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]