As the country continues to suffer the effects of COVID-19, the animal welfare field is evolving the way we respond to crisis and offer community support. Housing insecurity, although not new, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The economic hardship faced by so many people will severely impact families who rent their homes and evictions are the next obstacle in the national crisis.
An estimated 30–40 million renters are at risk of being evicted by the end of 2020 and with 72% of renters owning pets, the number of animals displaced with their people could be catastrophic. Additionally, pre-COVID estimations asserted nearly 10 million low-and extremely-low-income renter households were severely housing-cost burdened (50% or more of income spent on housing costs), and because of the economic consequences of COVID-19, another 1.5 million rental households are expected to become severely housing-cost burdened.
These predictions underscore the need for shelters and other animal services providers to ready a response and offer services that will keep people and pets together or provide temporary solutions to ensure families stay intact.
In coming months, many families will face the heart-wrenching decision of choosing between a place to live and the pets they love. The Humane Society of the United States is cognizant of the immense pressure and burden placed upon local shelters and rescues and, in collaboration with The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, has created this toolkit to provide you with tangible ways to respond in your local area, region, and state. Together, united as the animal welfare sector, we can do our part to minimize the trauma and devastation caused by the impending eviction crisis.
An important first step in preparing to respond to this inescapable challenge is to communicate with your employees so they are aware of the eviction crisis and its implications for your organization. Share the potential challenges and ask for their recommendations on how to create an organized response. Engaging staff in the problem solving and preparation for this response is vital to gaining support for new or expanded programming.
Next, meet with your volunteers and donors so they are also engaged in the journey. As with any crisis, clear, consistent communication with all stakeholders is essential to navigating the challenges effectively. Once a supportive structure is created, you can start focusing on developing solutions to support the community.
There are two primary options for groups to consider in offering support:
- Provide resources and services designed to keep people and pets together even when people reside in temporary housing situations.
- Assist pet owners in finding temporary solutions within their own network. The secondary option is to provide temporary care and housing for a person’s pet while the pet owner seeks new housing accommodations.
Option 1 – Keeping people and pets together
When experiencing displacement or housing insecurity a variety of pet needs arise, both large and small. Consider how your organization can offer assistance, including but not limited to these resources:
- Support package – Similarly to what your organization offers to foster homes, provide the same free package to people for their pets.
- Flea/tick prevention
- Indoor crates
- Litter boxes/litter
- Dog houses
When people stay with friends or family while searching for a new home, these supplies and services are invaluable, alleviating one area of stress and worry in an overwhelming circumstance and can be the key to avoiding a negative outcome. Having up-to-date vaccinations and other services is often required or looked upon favorably by potential landlords. Crates, food and vaccinations can make all the difference.
- Veterinary care – Access to affordable veterinary care is limited or nonexistent for many pet owners even without the concern of stable and secure housing. Providing free veterinary care for people and pets experiencing temporary displacement can prevent an already stressful situation from worsening.
- Pet food – The COVID response has reinforced the importance of food support during a tough time. With evictions compounding financial stress, food support is more important than ever.
- Behavior advice and trainer referrals – Changes in environments, stressful moves and being around new people can all create behavioral issues like barking, lunging on leash or not using the litter box. Offering behavioral support can be lifesaving.
- Pet fees and deposits – Pet fees and deposits can be very expensive and simply out of reach for many people, especially when already struggling with costs associated with moving or loss of income. No one should have their family torn apart over a few hundred dollars. Offering to cover a one-time fee is money well spent when the result is keeping a family intact.
- Hotel and motel partnerships – Many people have no friends or family to stay with when evicted, so residing in a hotel or motel is an unfortunate reality. At a minimum, you can research and create a list of pet-friendly hotels in your community to share with people. You can also take the next step and, as an animal welfare organization, reach out to hotels to request and encourage relaxation of policies on allowing pets. When hotels allow pets there is often an additional fee required so, similar to a pet fee/deposit, allocate funds to cover those costs so that pets can remain with their people.
- Emotional Support Animals (ESA) – One in every four adults in the United States have some type of disability. Many people are not aware of or do not understand the legal requirement for reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act that allows people to have emotional support animals. This can be one more option for keeping people and pets together. Create an instructional flyer to provide pet owners details on how to navigate the ESA process and offer a sample letter that can be taken to a health care provider to make the process easier. More information can be found at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Here is a quick reference sheet on service and assistance animals from Opening Doors.
In order to provide any or all of the above-mentioned services and resources:
- Partner with local social services and other agencies to create action plans and resource kits for people being evicted who have pets. Rather than bringing the pet directly to the shelter, provide the care package, resource options, etc. so the pet owner is easily able to find your resources.
- Create a volunteer team of trained ambassadors who will serve as assigned support for families throughout their housing crisis. Have them deliver care packages to the hotels/motels, call around a find possibly temporary, pet-friendly housing, or assume other duties to lessen the burden on existing shelter staff.
- Consider creating a special fund that you can promote to your donors or that could potentially bring in new support.
- Create a case for support to help donors, volunteers, foundations and other stakeholders understand the fiscal implications of increased animal intake versus keeping pets with their people.
- Work with other non-profits in your community to pool resources for eviction-specific support.
- Ask for donations of gently used supplies like leashes/collars, crates, dog houses, etc.
- Appeal to large community groups or clubs to donate care package items and host assembly-day activities to prepare a ready supply.
- Build a network of veterinarians interested in and willing to contribute or partner during the crisis.
- Reallocate funds from other areas to respond to the eviction disaster.
- Check out the Pets for Life Sustainability Guide for detailed guidance on how to message and fundraise for pet owner support services.
People will only utilize support services if they know the services exists and feel comfortable seeking the support. Promote your programs clearly and concisely, translate into languages other than English if your community demographics indicate the need, and anticipate ways people in under-served areas will access the information. See examples of support service program descriptions from Denver Animal Protection and Animal Protective Association of Missouri:
- Denver Animal Protection Displacement/Eviction Relief Program
- Animal Protective Association of Missouri Pet Partners Crisis Housing Program
Option 2 – Peer to peer
- Networking – Encourage people to think through their own circle of friends, family and social networks for temporary placement of their pets. Offering the assistance package, veterinary care, food and behavior advice listed in Option 1 can open up options for people willing to provide a short-term place for the pet to stay.
- Match making – Provide an online platform that allows people to identify others in their community willing to be a temporary guardian. See an example of the Temporary Pet Guardians program from the Animal Welfare Association, which includes a sample Temporary Pet Guardian Contract.
Another example comes from a program enacted by St. Hubert’s in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy but a concept that can be applied to the current crisis. They provided a range of supportive services such as food, supplies, behavior support, veterinary care, and live support for match making and help setting up an online account. They also provided a foster contract as a courtesy and strongly recommended people use it. By sharing an executed foster contract, people were then given access to the suite of supportive services. An online social network for people to find one another was set up on a Ning.com platform and used a VOIP phone number that could be forwarded to staff’s cell phones. St. Hubert’s moderated the forum and tried to keep geographically distant foster interest from engaging so the animals stayed in the state or tri-state area.
Here is a screen shot of the online platform. Here is the foster contract and a program information letter.
- 911fosterpets – This online service connects individuals to potential foster homes for their pets.
Option 3 – Temporary placement
Inevitably, some people will not be able to keep their pet while living in a temporary situation and searching for a new place to call home. Providing placement and care for the pet during this difficult time is an essential service all animal welfare organizations and shelters should consider, especially during the COVID eviction crisis.
While the sheltering community has seen great success in 2020 with increasing foster programs, there is a distinct difference between foster homes for animals being re-homed and foster homes for animals being returned to their permanent guardians. There are various considerations, from legal liability and medical care to visitation and length of foster time offered. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, but here are suggestions and examples to utilize.
- Existing programs – Many shelters have programs in place for domestic violence response, and with a few simple modifications can open the service up to include people facing evictions. Here is an example from the Humane Rescue Alliance of a protective custody agreement that could be adapted for eviction support.
- Fostering where permanent guardian retains ownership – This is ideal to reduce fear and feelings of being taken advantage of during a moment of crisis, and to increase the likelihood of people utilizing the service. The key is to set clear expectations from the beginning on parameters of visitation and communication, length of stay (preferably start with 30 days with the option to extend as needed), and build in relinquishment terms so the shelter minimizes challenges in the unfortunate situation where someone can no longer keep their pet.
A straightforward, simple safekeeping agreement like the ones from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington and All About Animals Rescue may be all your organization needs. For more in-depth paperwork, Paws Between Homes has great sample documents to use when structuring your program in this way:
Agreement for Services
Pet Information Sheet
Permanent Guardian Sheet
Foster Home Agreement
Note: Consider adding to your foster home agreement that posting photos of animals on social media is not allowed. With the pets being owned, public sharing in this way could create problems and misunderstandings.
- Fostering with owner relinquishment and reclaim – If your organization has no other choice but to structure its eviction response foster program in this way, see these examples from the Monadnock Humane Society and Michigan Humane Society that clearly state the animal will be returned.
Note: The key to success for temporary housing of owned animals is to identify fosters who understand the need to support people going through a crisis situation and believe in extending compassion and non-judgment. The shelter should be the liaison between the permanent guardian and foster home to minimize complications and challenges.
- Boarding – In the absence of foster home availability, or in addition to foster homes to maximize temporary placement, the use of shelter kennel space can be an option to house animals, with the same agreements provided above used with the owners. While not as cost-effective, partner with local boarding facilities to provide additional space for temporary housing. With fewer people traveling due to COVID, most boarding facilities have available space and may be willing to provide a discount.
Messaging of the program is critical. As people reach out seeking assistance or enter the shelter intending to surrender their pet, asking the right questions, responding with kindness, and understanding will help determine the best course of action for each situation. Training key staff and volunteers on how to provide this new level of support is paramount to success. Proactively letting the community know your organization is a resource will ensure fewer surrendered pets and greater community trust. See this example of program promotion from the Monadnock Humane Society.
To keep pets in their homes, we must keep people in their homes. In addition to implementing programmatic support that provides direct benefits to people and their pets who are facing eviction during the COVID-19 economic crisis (and beyond), a vital step is for animal shelters and other animal welfare organizations to lend their voices to existing affordable housing advocacy efforts. Advocating at the legal and/or policy level is critical to creating broad, long-lasting changes in affordable housing policies and practices that will be more protective of people and their pets.
- Legal representation – Consider creating a partnership with local bar associations to implement a legal-support resource bank for pet owners facing eviction. There may be legal aid societies or attorneys within your community interested in keeping families together and want to help in this way. A donor supported legal fund managed by your group may be helpful in the event a family with a companion animal is facing eviction or asked to pay unreasonable pet fees. Work with your fundraising team to identify ways to engage donors in this unique way of shelter diversion programming.
American Bar Association Find Legal Help/Find a Lawyer Lawyers.com
- Sample press release – A press release from your organization can be used to alert local media about important work your organization is doing, a success story your organization would like to share or of emerging issues that your organization is facing. For example, a press release from a shelter or rescue organization highlighting public support for affordable housing programs or legislation would bring attention to how animal welfare and affordable housing overlaps.
- Letters to the Editor (LTEs) – Letters to the Editor are an excellent and relatively easy way to bring attention to important issues because LTEs are some of the most widely read parts of print and online newspapers. See a sample LTE here that staff and volunteers can use as a template. Be sure to check LTE word limits for your local newspaper to ensure that your LTE has the highest chance of publication.
- One-pager – A one-pager can be sent to your city, county, state and federal government officials and can be used to inform volunteers, staff and animal advocates who are involved in animal issues but may be less comfortable discussing the relationship between affordable housing and companion animal welfare. Information from a one-pager can be shared on your social media pages or emailed in your newsletters. Please feel free to use this one-pager template or create your own.
- Legislation/policy advocacy – Efforts to support affordable housing policies can be undertaken at the city, county, state or federal level, and the most effective opportunities to engage for your community will likely depend on where you live. For example, do you live where eviction moratoriums and/or rental assistance are being implemented at the city or county level, or where there is a local grassroots housing coalition? Or is your state-level government implementing these policies? Maybe your best option is to support the work of groups like the National Low-Income Housing Coalition or National Housing Law Project at the federal level. Remember, you do not need to reinvent the wheel or feel as though you are responsible for having the answers to making affordable housing policies more effective and just. The goal is to lend our voices, as animal welfare professionals and advocates, to the important work that other groups are already doing!
Here are some steps to take to help you and your organization determine where to plug in and how to support the work of the affordable housing organizations already on the ground in your community:
- Find your state affordable housing partners – sign up for their emails, look at recent blog posts, action alerts, social media, etc. Some basic research on what their organization is focused on will help you understand what legislation affordable housing advocates are supporting (or opposing) in your community. If you have questions or you want to confirm specific information that you would like to put in an LTE or press release, reach out to these partners for help.
- Check out this map of state eviction moratorium protections and then ask your state partners how you can help support their efforts.
- Connect with your local, state, and federal legislators to find out what affordable housing policies are being considered at each level of government and to ask them to support policies that will protect renters during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis.
- Find your Congressional District/House of Representatives member
- Find your United States Senators
- Find your state legislators (note that “lower chamber” means State House of Representatives and “upper chamber” means State Senate):
- To find your local city council member or county commissioner you will need to visit the website of the local government. Typically, there is a page where you can search “Find my council member” or “Find my county commissioner” by entering in your address.
Once you learn who your various legislative representatives are, call and email each person asking them (1) what they’re doing to support affordable housing measures that will protect renters and (2) asking them to specifically support any efforts to provide rental assistance and to extend eviction moratoriums in your community. Here is a sample dialogue that you can use as you formulate your own emails or prepare for a phone call.
- “Take Action” pages – you can advocate through other groups’ “Take Action” pages. Similar to The Humane Society of the United States’ and Humane Society International’s advocacy efforts, national affordable housing groups also have easy-to-use action alert pages:
Help your community understand why the eviction crisis is important to animal welfare by using these Facebook graphics. Insert your organization's logo and create calls to action in your post to encourage your social media followers to foster, volunteer, or advocate for renter protections.
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