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In Sacramento, Calif., the Front Street Animal Shelter has embraced the idea that it takes a village to care for homeless people and their pets.
Gina Knepp, animal care services manager at the municipal shelter, says her facility takes in pets from homeless people about every other week, often when their owners are hospitalized or incarcerated. She’s committed to housing the animals (provided the stay isn’t too extensive), vetting them and reuniting them with their owners—which she calls “probably one of the most joyful things I experience in my work … watching the true love that they have for each other.”
Homeless people have strong relationships with their pets, and their animals sometimes provide their only link to society, Knepp says. “That human-animal bond is powerful, whether you live in a house or you live under the freeway.”
Knepp had no animal welfare background when she started working at Front Street about four years ago; she had managed Sacramento’s 911 services for 19 years, then filled in at Front Street when the previous shelter manager quit. She decided to stay. “I found my new passion,” she says.
Shortly after joining the shelter she met with Lynn Madison, a local advocate for the homeless and their pets, whose compassionate approach made sense to Knepp. Knepp waives the usual $200 or $300 reclaim fee for pets belonging to homeless people, because that’s out of reach for most of them. But she’ll have a “different conversation” if an owner refuses to get the animal spayed or neutered, she adds, and the shelter is judicious about returning pets to people who have mental illness or substance abuse issues. Thankfully, such cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Knepp “could very easily hold these animals hostage,” notes Emily Halcon, Sacramento’s homeless services coordinator, but she’s opted to take a more flexible approach.
Taking Care of Their Own
The Front Street shelter joined local residents and service providers a few months ago to help Janice Moore, who was living under an overpass with her two dogs and cat. Police arrested Moore for illegal camping on a frigid night in early January and dropped off her animals at Front Street before taking her to jail, where she spent four nights. Knepp says the arrest likely saved Moore from freezing to death, and it returned her pets to familiar digs: They’ve been in the shelter three times.
Moore has a small income and no mental or drug problems, Knepp says. “She just needed help. It’s kind of mind-boggling to see how hard it is to get folks housing when they have animals. It’s hard enough for the average person to rent a place when they have pets, but imagine being a homeless person and trying to figure out that.”
Blogs by Sacramento Bee writer Ryan Lillis highlighted Moore’s story, and a team that included government and nonprofit officials pulled together to get her off the streets. When the shelter asked for donations on its Facebook page to cover Moore’s pet deposit, it met its $700 goal in 23 minutes, then raised an additional $800 for grocery store gift cards. After spending a month in a motel, Moore and her four-legged companions moved into an apartment in March.
In another case, officials doing a homeless census discovered a woman who was eight months pregnant but reluctant to leave the streets out of concern for her dog. “It’s definitely a reason that a lot of homeless people refuse to go inside—they can’t take their animals with them,” Knepp says. Knepp found a foster family to keep the dog for a few months while the woman transitions into permanent housing—a solution that kept the dog out of the shelter and allowed the woman to focus on her housing situation without worrying about her pet.
Halcon aims to replicate such efforts on a larger scale. She has met with representatives of three local animal shelters and is working to forge a collaboration between pet advocates and homeless service providers. She’s hopeful that they’ll identify solutions to address the pet issues that have been a significant barrier to ending homelessness.
On any given night, Sacramento has 2,500 to 3,000 homeless people. There are no reliable numbers on how many of them own pets, Halcon says, but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon.
Madison notes, “Some people will say, ‘Well, the homeless shouldn’t have animals.’ Well, whether they should or they shouldn’t, the fact is they do.”
Hurricane Katrina raised awareness of how reluctant disaster victims are to evacuate without their animals. Knepp sees a similar shift occurring in how the public views homeless people and their pets. “People are recognizing that you’ve got to take care of the whole person,” she says, “and that sometimes includes the dog.”