Many Unhoused People Would Choose Their Pet Over a Shelter. Can Shelters Change?

Many homeless and domestic violence shelters forbid people from bringing pets, a rule that keeps many people in need away from the system. A bill in California would provide funding so shelters can accommodate and care for pets.

If you didn't have a home, would you give up your pet to move into a shelter?

According to Pets of the Homeless, 5 to 10% of the U.S. unhoused population owns a pet, and other groups believe the percentage is even higher. Still, many homeless and domestic violence shelters across the country lack resources to provide adequate veterinary care or accommodations for pets, and don't allow animals unless they're service animals.

"This is an important part of sheltering homeless individuals," said Susan Riggs, senior director of housing policy for ASPCA. "Many of them will actually refuse emergency shelters in the event that their pet can't come with them."

In a bid to get more unhoused people into shelter systems, a California bill could extend a 2019 program giving shelters funding for pet amenities and supplies like crates, leashes, food and veterinary care.

Some shelters in California received grants under the 2019 program, the Pet Assistance and Support Program, which the state funded with $5 million in 2019 and $10 million in 2021. Senate Bill 513, introduced by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, would make the support program permanent, ensuring shelters have the funds they need to continue accommodating pets.

"It costs money to build out the system," says Hertzberg. "They don't have it. They're trying to scrape every nickel together to just take care of folks."

Funding the program would ensure that if someone is offered a spot in a shelter or interim housing, their pet can come, too. And getting to stay with a pet can have lasting impact on a person's wellbeing, said Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of PATH, an organization that provides housing and services to unhoused Californians.

"It can help with relationships, making a connection over a pet. It can help with physical activity, reducing anxiety," she said.

"Pets are people's children. You wouldn't want to leave your kids on the street. That's the same way people feel about their pets," says Tim Huxford, associate director at PATH. "People experiencing homelessness, they have pets for companionship, for emotional support."

The bill is in the state Assembly at the moment, but Hertzberg is hopeful it will reach Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk to be signed into law, and take effect in 2023.

"It’s a very inexpensive, humane and appropriate way to get people off the streets," added Hertzberg, a Democrat who represents the eastern San Fernando Valley. "It’s common sense."

An amendment to the bill expanded its scope to allow domestic violence shelters to receive grants and make their facilities pet-ready, too. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women.

Another amendment added funding to cover training, spaying and neutering, and behavioral help for the pets.

"The ultimate goal is to get both the pets and the people sustainably and permanently housed," Riggs said. "We want to make sure that if the pets have been living on the street for a long period of time, that they are getting the training they need to adapt to living indoors."

Reducing barriers to housing

California has tried to curb the number of homeless encampments that have cropped up in recent years, which have been subject to complaints from residents. Research shows encampments tend to form when there is an insufficient supply of affordable housing, and when shelter rules or conditions aren't compatible with the clients.

Pet care policies in shelters were cited in a HUD report as one potential reason that some unhoused people preferred encampments.

The Venice Beach site of the "A Bridge Home" program in Los Angeles opened with pet owners in mind. PATH operates the interim housing facility, which is aimed to be a step prior to permanent housing. It features a dog run and pet relief area, and local veterinarians make onsite visits or provide transport to their offices.

"It really shows that if you can provide all the wraparound services, that you really can help people go from the streets and into a home of their own," said Hark Dietz.

With $600,000 from the first rounds of state funding lessening reliance on philanthropy or partners to pay for pet care, PATH is expanding pet care to more people at other sites, whether they have a dog, a cat or a lizard.

"We need to be able to continue to keep our unhoused neighbors with their companions," said Hark Dietz. "And we want to reduce any reason to say 'no' to come inside."