Imagine needing desperately to escape, but being held back because someone you love couldn’t come with you.
That was the case for a woman in Wichita, Kansas. She had tried to leave her physically abusive husband multiple times—but she always found herself at a loss for a place to go because of her two dogs.
When it opened its doors to dogs earlier this year, the Inter-Faith Ministries shelter in Wichita became the first in the state to allow pets. And it helped this woman finally leave her dangerous home situation, dogs in tow, Inter-Faith Ministries Executive Director LaTasha St. Arnault said.
In Kansas, homeless pet owners weren’t just underserved; they weren’t being served at all, she said.
“Their pets are their family,” she said. “If we’re denying an individual based on the fact that they have a pet then we really aren’t serving them.”
That’s not just the case in Kansas. Homeless shelters across the country typically don’t allow pets, leaving a gap in resources for homeless pet owners who don’t want to lose their companions. But more are starting to rethink their rules.
Right now, Inter-Faith Ministries only allows pets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when a veterinarian is present to take a look at the dogs and provide basic care.
Way ahead of its time, The People Concern organization in Los Angeles has allowed pets for years in its interim housing programs, including one in El Pueblo that opened in September.
Kait Peters, development director at The People Concern, said the pet-friendly programs have been successful because of a community network. With the help of volunteers, the nonprofit provides vaccines, food and grooming for the pets.
Welcoming pets is about creating a more accessible environment, Peters said.
“Every individual person out on the streets has their own individual set of needs,” she said. “It’s up to us to create the circumstances that will help each individual person succeed to the highest power.”
Sometimes programs will arrange for a person’s dog or cat to be fostered in another home while they get back on their feet, but that isn’t always a great option.
“Having their companion with them is a really important lifeline,” Peters said.
“When we are trying to make it feel comfortable and welcoming for people to come inside and start to rebuild their lives, it’s absolutely necessary that we remove as many barriers and obstacles as we can.”
Bringing pets inside hasn’t only helped the owners.
A man staying in a The People Concern facility was very sick and died, Peters said. His dog had nowhere to go.
The staff noticed another man, who had been having a hard time moving forward, paying attention to the dog. Staff decided to formally introduce them—and it was a perfect match.
“That responsibility given over to this guy and the relationship and love that comes from a dog, that was a beginning of a change,” Peters said.
Although there are more homeless shelters allowing pets today than in the past, the trend isn’t spreading fast enough, Pets of the Homeless founder Genevieve Frederick said.
It’s not uncommon for Frederick to get a call from someone she can’t help, she said. Not every area has an accessible pet-friendly shelter. If you’re in Kansas, outside of Wichita, you’re likely out of luck.
Pets of the Homeless doesn’t know about any pet-friendly shelters in Minnesota, Missouri or Utah, either.
“People will stay on the streets before they will relinquish their pet to the animal shelters,” she said. “They just will not separate from these animals.”
She said she gets at least one call a week from a victim of domestic violence.
“Domestic violence shelters are way more accepting of animals,” Frederick said. “Because they know these people will not leave their animal behind, just like they’re not going to leave their children behind.”
Pets of the Homeless also helps connect homeless clients with veterinary care and pet food. The organization offers crates to churches, fire and police stations and transportation services.
“These are the people that come in contact with the homeless every day,” Frederick said.
But one of her biggest goals is to expand the network of pet-friendly shelters. Frederick said the organization is willing to work with shelters to create programs that work for them. They’ll even supply the crates for the animals.
But she often gets turned down. Shelters are “worried about the liability,” she said.
Bringing pets inside hasn’t brought additional issues to The People Concern or Inter-Faith Ministries, St. Arnault and Peters said. At the shelter, pets are required to be on a leash, and staff is thoughtful about where animals and their owners are placed within the shelter. Staff also keeps up constant communication with pet owners.
“The most important piece is that we’re always talking about what the expectations are,” Peters said.
Police in Frederick’s community in Nevada hand out Pets of the Homeless business cards to pet owners who are homeless. It’s just one way to help get the word out about what services are available and help people move forward.
“Once they’re in that building,… maybe they will be able to hook up with a social worker that can help them get out of this situation.”
But first, they have to be able to get through the door.
Accommodating pet owners is just one example “of helping people rebuild their own individual lives in the most individualized way,” Peters said.
“I think the idea of pets being able to come inside with people is at the core of what’s really important in how we serve other people,” she said.