Sacramento's pet-friendly winter shelter is a success, with some complications to learn from

 Joey Mandel’s dog Austin Puppers is among the 100 dogs and eight cats that have come out of the cold with their owners since the city’s winter triage homeless shelter opened in early December. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

Joey Mandel’s dog Austin Puppers is among the 100 dogs and eight cats that have come out of the cold with their owners since the city’s winter triage homeless shelter opened in early December. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

Sacramento's first low-barrier winter shelter (one that accepts the "3 P's" - partners, pets, and possessions) is proving to be quite successful at getting people out of the streets and encampments in the winter. However, that does not mean they did not experience their fair share of challenges.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s working,” Jaycob Bytel, spokesperson for Mayor Darrell Steinberg, said of the city’s approach to sheltering homeless people this winter. “Allowing pets to stay with their owners has been a critical part of getting chronically homeless people to come in, which is exactly what we had hoped to do.”

By opening their doors to people and their animals in December, the Volunteers of America operated shelter has welcomed more than 100 dogs and eight cats. With this staggering number of human-animal families served in such a short period of time, it is clear that the shelter is filling a huge void in social services and need within the homeless community.

Part of the model's success is not only allowing animals, but allowing people to sleep with their animals. Up until recently, the more conventional approach to co-sheltering was kenneling animals in a separate space to reduce risk of incidence. Initially, VOA staffers planned to follow this model. “But we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work,” said the agency’s Christie Holderegger. “These animals are support and comfort for our guests. They wanted to be with their pets.”

Bringing animals into a shelter space, however, does create a more complex environment. According to records, two dog bites occurred at the shelter and a third happened off site. All the bites were to people. 

When interviewed about these incidents, Jace Huggins - chief animal control officer for the city - does not consider the number of bites involving the winter shelter’s canine residents to be excessive. The three incidents, he said, account for a small percentage of all dog bites investigated by his agency since the shelter opened.

“Some of these dogs were being raised in very tumultuous environments,” outdoors at homeless encampments, said a city animal shelter manager Gina Knepp. “They are very protective of their owners, some of whom are struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and other problems. Given all of those things, I’m surprised that it has gone so well and we haven’t seen more chaos.”

Dog bites and other animal behavior issues are a risk the shelter took when they opened, but overall they find the risk and its consequences worth the outcome - which is a vastly reduced street homeless population in the winter. 

The shelter was scheduled to only stay open until March 31st, but officials are discussing keeping it open beyond that date.