When Homeless Shelters Create Room For Pets, Everybody Wins

Many homeless people will not seek shelter if their companion animals aren't welcome.

Life just got a little easier for homeless families with pets near Salem, Oregon.

Last week saw the opening of a new cat and dog boarding facility for families in transitional housing.

That means that Betty Hargens and her great-grandson, who lost their home after medical expenses for Hargens’ late husband became too much to bear, don’t have to be separated from their beloved Chihuahua, Chloe.

“I adopted her out of a veterinarian's office I worked in, and she is so dear to me,” Hargens told the Statesman Journal. “She means everything to me and my great-grandson.”

Previously, Hargens had to wrap Chloe in a blanket and leave her in the car while she and her great-grandson slept inside churches converted into shelters.

The new facility, which is has space for six dogs and two cats, is the ninth of its kind by the PetSmart Promise program, a collaboration between PetSmart and Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that serves homeless families. It's attached to the West Salem day center, which is part of The Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network, a Family Promise affiliate. Pet owners care for and play with their pets during the day, while volunteers take over the animals' care at night while the owners sleep at churches that are part of the network. 

The first PetSmart Promise shelter opened in 2012 in Phoenix.

“Most homeless shelters don’t accept pets, so families were choosing to live in their cars or on the street in order to stay with their pet,” a PetSmart spokesperson told The Huffington Post. “Pets provide an invaluable comfort to their family members. For the children of these homeless families, their pet may be the only constant part of their life. It’s important for their well-being that they not have to give up their pet too.”

The difficulties of being homeless with pets are well-documented. Earlier this year, Oregon man Bob Brokaw told the Associated Press that he won’t seek a warm bed in cold weather because most shelters won’t allow his best friend, a border collie who has been by his side for eight years, inside.

“I’m not getting rid of my dog to go indoors,” he said. Brokaw noted he does all he can to care for his pet.

“He eats what I eat and every time I have something extra, he gets it,” he told the AP.

Brokaw’s predicament isn’t that unusual. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of homeless people have cats or dogs, according to Pets of the Homeless, a nonprofit that connects homeless pet owners with pet food and veterinary care. And that means many people choose not to seek shelter, instead of abandoning their animal companions, the organization writes:

"The major problem for a homeless person is housing. Many shelters, motels and other assisted housing programs do not want to have pets on their property, due to health department restrictions and safety of the others they serve. So they live in their cars, in RVs and in tent camps."

Victims of domestic violence often find themselves in similar predicaments, since many domestic violence shelters also don’t accept pets. However, more and more facilities are beginning to recognize the issue and offer living quarters for companion animals.

“These people are faced with terrible, gut-wrenching decisions,” Esperanza Zuniga of pet rescue group Red Rover told HuffPost in May. "[They are] faced with, 'do I leave this dangerous situation and leave my pet behind to face more danger?'"

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