When homeless people seek treatment or shelter, where do their pets go?
When people experiencing homelessness need to go into residential treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, finding a place for their pet to stay can be a big barrier.
“In April, over the course of two weeks, I got four calls from different organizations,” said Vickie Ramirez, who works at a clinic that serves homeless youth and their pets. “And they’re like, ‘My client’s ready to go into treatment today. I have a bed for them today — if I can find someone to foster their animal.”
Ramirez said she couldn’t find a foster for any of them, so none of them went into treatment.
As many as one in every four people experiencing homelessness has a pet. But in Seattle, as in most cities across the country, there are few options for short-term foster care for the pets of people in crisis.
“Seattle Humane has a program, but they’re slammed,” Ramirez said. “There’s this huge need for emergency fostering in Seattle that is not being met, especially since the eviction moratorium ended.”
Diaz Dixon works with animal shelters across the country to make more emergency foster programs available to people who need them.
“It is a huge issue,” he said. People view their pets as family members, so if they can’t find a safe home for them, “they won’t go into a substance abuse treatment facility, or into a domestic violence shelter or a homelessness shelter. They end up spiraling and oftentimes getting even worse.”
Dixon said if people don’t get treatment or other help, it can make it even harder for them to get out of homelessness. And, he said, people sometimes stay in abusive living situations to avoid being separated from their pets, or to protect their pet from a violent partner.
He said one key is for animal shelters to have a case manager on hand who can help people find a place for their pets and deal with all the paperwork.
Ramirez said it’s also important not just to have a bank of potential foster placements to call upon, but to also have a transitional space for pets.
“If I’m going to take in a big dog, I need to know the history of that big dog and whether my family is safe with that big dog,” she said. “Will Seattle Animal Shelter take that dog in for three days to do a dog assessment and then have a foster group be able to take over?”
“It’s this whole bigger problem,” she concluded, and any system that’s put in place to solve it would need to be a well-oiled machine; if someone’s ready to enter drug or alcohol treatment, “You only have that hour, maybe. Otherwise, you have to wait for that person to circle back to be ready [for treatment] again.”