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A Safe Place for Pets and People

By Katie Linek

Keeping the Whole Family Together

URIPALS, New York City’s first initiative to allow domestic violence survivors to enter shelters with their pets, helped Spike and Kirby’s family stay together in a safe place.

Summer 2015

Housing. Education. Employment. These are the services that take top priority when helping homeless families achieve selfsufficiency. More and more however, service providers are noticing the existence of a large—but adorable—barrier to receiving these vital services: pets.

Nearly 70 percent of American households have pets. For many families, their animal companions are far more than just a pet—they are like a child, a sibling, or a best friend, providing unconditional love and support. Unfortunately, a majority of homeless shelters do not have the resources to house pets, leaving families with a difficult decision—give up an important member of the family or continue down the path of homelessness. In the case of people facing homelessness because of domestic violence, it can mean the choice between saving a loved one—the pet—or saving themselves. Too often, the result is families living in unsafe and unstable conditions—in their car, on the street, bouncing from couch to couch, or with an abuser—rather than sacrifice their beloved pet.

Shanna Dyott considers her mixed lab, Baby Girl, to be part of the family. Baby Girl has been with Shanna through the birth of her two sons, and is like a sister to them. When Shanna was let go from her job, the Dyotts were unable to make ends meet and were forced to leave their Arizona home, staying in a car for two weeks. “We had Baby Girl, and there was no one who would take her,” says Dyott.

That is why organizations across the country are stepping up to help keep homeless families together—including their pets. “We recognized that for the vast majority of families experiencing homelessness, if they want to receive services, they are not going to be able to keep their pets,” explains Claas Ehlers, director of affiliate services for Family Promise, a Summit, New Jersey-based nonprofit operating nationally that helps homeless and low-income families through a variety of programs. “We recognized that was an area we could have a specific impact on.”

Family Promise’s Arizona affiliate was able to provide the Dyotts a place to stay with Baby Girl. “For them to be able to help us out in this way … it kept our family together,” says Dyott.

Family Promise provides shelter for families through a national network of interdenominational congregations, and has day centers where families can take showers, receive case management, and look for housing and jobs. In 2012, Family Promise partnered with pet supply retailer PetSmart to create PetSmart Promise, a program that provides options for homeless families to keep their pets while on the road to stable housing. The partnership expands existing Family Promise day centers throughout the country to include facilities for the pets of families who are temporarily homeless.

The PetSmart Promise program offers different options based on the needs of the family and the limitations of the Family Promise affiliate they are working with. The program offers on-site pet sanctuaries, free off-site boarding at PetsHotels, or a pet-fostering program for affiliates without access to a sanctuary or PetsHotel. By the end of 2015, PetSmart will have created 12 pet sanctuaries at affiliated sites across the country—ensuring that not only can families keep their pets; they will be able to interact with them every day.

“PetSmart wanted to make sure that with every one of our 182 affiliates, no family would go into shelter and have to lose their pet,” says Ehlers.

In New York City, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, an animal welfare organization founded to reduce the rate at which New York City animals were being euthanized, began their Helping Pets and People in Crisis program in 2007. The program helps pet owners in difficult circumstances such as homelessness, domestic violence, illness, natural disasters, and other emergencies. They do this by offering creative solutions aimed at keeping pets with their families or reuniting them quickly once their situation is stabilized.

Jenny Coffey, a social worker who spearheaded the program confirms, “In traditional services, there is a major gap for pet owners facing crisis—we address those challenges head on.”

For homeless families, Helping Pets and People in Crisis will assist with emergency planning, such as helping to identify a friend, family member, or neighbor who could house the animal. They will also explore whether the pet is an Emotional Service Animal, a dog belonging to a person suffering from emotional or psychological disabilities, providing the pet owner with rights to have their pet nearby.

Supporting Healthy and Happy Pets

Those who do not enter shelter often still need help supporting their pet. Pets require food, toys, and often times, veterinary visits to stay happy and healthy. Individuals and families will care for pets on what limited resources they have.

Coffey explains that Helping Pets and People in Crisis provides resources for these families as well. “We can assess the animal and put in place low-cost or free veterinary care for spaying/neutering and vaccinations, as well as provide basic supplies such as a crate or pet food.”

Nevada-based nonprofit organization Pets of the Homeless also provides pet food and emergency veterinary care to the homeless in communities across the United States and Canada. They have given care to over 12,000 pets, providing vaccinations, treating illnesses and injuries, as well as spaying and neutering. In addition, they have provided 355 tons of pet food and supplies to homeless and low-income pet owners.

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