WATERVILLE — Darryl Roberts was working outside his Water Street apartment building in the city’s South End Thursday as Vega, his 2-year-old black mouth cur, kept watch nearby from next to his dog house.

Roberts had rescued Vega from a household where he was mistreated and constantly kept in a kennel.

“I could save the dog, or there was a chance that he was going to get sent to another lousy home,” Roberts said.

“He’s a big love bug,” he said, rubbing the big dog on its back.

Vega is current on all of his shots and licensed, but Roberts said he hasn’t had the money to get him neutered yet. He was waiting to get approved for disability Social Security so he could afford the surgery, which he estimated would cost about $140. A lifelong dog and cat owner, Roberts said he’s always tried to make sure his pets are healthy, but veterinarians can be expensive.

The Humane Society Waterville Area recognizes that many of the dogs and cats living in low-income households in Waterville — like Vega — haven’t been spayed or neutered. Some may have never even been to a veterinarian.

That leaves the city with an animal overpopulation problem, but it also compromises the health of adored family pets that aren’t getting regular screenings and vaccinations.

Starting this month, the humane society is setting out to change that with a project in the city’s South and North ends to help families care for their pets and reduce the number of animals ending up at the shelter. The program, called People-Animals-Together, will provide free spay/neuter clinics, flea and tick prevention, vaccines, basic preventative health care and resources to help keep pets healthy in the future.

“We want to build relationships with people who own these pets. We want them to know we are in this together,” said Lisa Smith, the humane society’s executive director.

The project is being funded by a grant from PetSmart Charities. The Waterville program is modeled on the Pets for Life strategy from the Humane Society of the United States. Pets For Life-affiliated programs are active in neighborhoods in almost 30 American cities, including places such as Detroit; Camden, New Jersey; and Providence, Rhode Island, according to its 2014 report.

The national humane society estimates 23 million pets are living in underserved communities in the U.S. Of those, 87 percent are not spayed or neutered, and 77 percent have never seen a veterinarian. In comparison, PetSmart estimates that in U.S. households overall, only 20 percent of pets have not been spayed or neutered.

In Waterville, low rates of spaying and neutering pets has led to overpopulation, particularly of cats, Smith said. In many instances, those animals end up at the shelter.

“We are drowning in kittens,” she said.

The relatively high cost of surgery and lack of transportation to a veterinarian are some of the common barriers that inhibit people from spaying and neutering their animals, said Elizabeth Stone, a veterinarian who runs the low-cost Community Spay Clinic in Topsham.

“People understand it is important and they want to do it,” Stone said. “It’s really an affordability and access barrier.”

The new program is tightly focused on poor neighborhoods running in a north-south strip on the city’s east side. People will need to prove residency, like a utility bill, to take advantage of the free services. Stone didn’t want to disclose the exact amount of the PetSmart grant, but said it will pay for 500 spay and neuter surgeries as well as preventative treatments and vaccinations.

Waterville is the first community in Maine to start a program through the highly competitive grant, according to Stone. Some 150 communities in the country applied to PetSmart Charities this year and only 30 were selected to receive funding.

Stone’s clinic has a popular twice-monthly free van transport for pets from Waterville — the van picks up the pets for the 100-mile round-trip — but it can still be hard to reach people who need help, she said.

“They love their pets. They need to know who we are,” Stone said. “They are not just going to drop off their pets with someone they don’t know and trust.”

To build that trust, the humane society will be working on an outreach campaign that includes public events and door-to-door outreach.

The humane society, along with partners the Center for Wildlife Health Research and the Community Spay Clinic, will introduce the program to community leaders during the South End Neighborhood Association meeting 9:30 a.m. Saturday at 37 Summer St. A second informational session will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Humane Society’s shelter at 100 Webb Road.

A free wellness event will be held Saturday, Oct. 31, to provide vaccines, flea prevention, de-worming and wellness checks from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Waterville American Legion hall on College Street.

Smith said the program’s core is personal one-on-one outreach in the community. Volunteers will be going door-to-door to talk to pet owners, explain the program and build relationships so residents will feel comfortable about coming to them for help.

The outreach is critical, not least because of “an undercurrent of thinking that if people are poor, they shouldn’t have pets,” Smith said.

“If there are financial resources available to put toward keeping pets in loving homes, let’s use those” to keep more pets out of shelter and save animal lives, she said.

Roberts, the South End dog owner, said any program that can help people in his neighborhood pay for pet care is welcome.

“A lot of people around here can’t afford it,” Roberts said. “I know people who have pets that have never been to the vet.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

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Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire