Dear US Interagency Council on Homelessness,
Thank you for once again inviting the front lines of homeless services to give feedback on the federal strategic plan. Your commitment to incorporating our voices into your amendment process is commendable.
I am participating in your call for feedback because I see an opportunity to strengthen the plan's response to an often ignored subpopulation of the homeless - people and families experiencing homelessness with a companion animal. In my experience working with people who are homeless with animals, they express that they do not have an equal opportunity to access shelter and housing programs that may help end their state of homelessness.
The status quo in homeless shelters and housing programs across the country is "no pets allowed," forcing many people with companion animals to decide between surrendering their animals to get help or to stay homeless with their animals. This is not an ultimatum anyone should have to face. In many cases, dedicated animal guardians will forego social services to maintain the human-animal bond - a relationship that is often their main source of love and support, and one that both adds to and helps them cope with the stressors of homelessness.
To reiterate your own vision, "No one should experience homelessness. No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home." Every family, no matter what its composition, should have an opportunity to access the help they need to find a home. To this end, we hope that you will incorporate our suggestions to make homeless services accessible to people with animals. There are many ways in which this can be done in your existing plan:
First, Objective 1, which calls for collaborative leadership at all levels and across sectors, can include officials in Animal Control and other leaders in animal welfare. For example, the city of Los Angeles has put forward a plan to reduce homelessness which involves the collaboration of their Animal Control department. People who are at risk of homelessness with animals' first point of contact with a city service may not be a homeless service. Rather, it may be an animal shelter. Cross-training to promote screening for homelessness as a reason for animal surrender both helps distribute appropriate resources and keep preventable surrenders out of our overcrowded animal shelters.
Objective 2, which calls for building the capacity of public and private organizations' ability to implement effective practices, speaks directly to my own heart, as the organization that I founded, My Dog is My Home, exists to carry out this exact mission as it relates to homelessness and animal companionship. One of the many ways we build capacity is through identifying and promoting effective practices.
We recognize people experiencing homelessness with animals as their own subpopulation with their own specific needs. This claim is backed by our personal experiences in the field as well as the qualitative and limited quantitative research which exists on the subpopulation; however, there is little data exploring the effective practices of co-sheltering people and animals together in homeless services, except in the fields of emergency preparedness and disaster response and domestic violence. Lessons learned from both of these fields can and should be applied to other types of systems designed to respond to homelessness. Moreover, more resources must be dedicated to building the best practices for this field.
Objective 2 also addresses the enumeration of homeless populations. The scope of homelessness and animal companionship has yet to be understood due to the lack of attention paid to counting people who are homeless with animals. Only recently have certain continua of care added questions to their PIT Count in an attempt to gage the size of the subpopulation. The continua of care responsible for pioneering this practice are CHIP Indy (Indianapolis), Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (Los Angeles), and the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board (Toledo).
However, as you already know, the PIT Count has its limitations for accurately enumerating the homeless population. Objective 2 of your plan also recognizes the importance of maximizing the use of Homeless Management Information Systems to collect data on homeless populations. This can also be a more effective way of counting people who are homeless with animals. Knoxville, TN's continuum of care has included questions about animal caretaking in HMIS, giving their continuum of care the ability to make more accurate estimates of their population of people who are homeless with animals and to plan initiatives accordingly.
In Objectives 3 and 4, you call for the provision of affordable and permanent supportive housing to end and prevent homelessness. As permanent housing gets looked to more and more as the solution to ending and preventing homelessness, I urge you to keep in mind those people with animals who are traditionally kept out of such programs due to the ubiquitous "no pets allowed" rule. In such circumstances, people who are aware of the Fair Housing Act and its protection of Emotional Support Animals often turn to this process to access housing. However, the longer I work in this field, the more I recognize that this additional process is cumbersome and unnecessary. Programs with proper support and staff training that are simply “pet friendly” will remove barriers to access.
It can be assumed that animals who accompany people who are homeless do provide emotional support, just as animals who belong to the domiciled provide emotional support. Although there is no comparative case study on housing programs designed to prevent and end homelessness that are pet friendly and those that are not (thus requiring proof of emotional support or service animal status in order to have animals on site), an interview with Breaking Ground, New York City's largest provider of permanent supportive housing which has some pet-friendly building, suggests that there are no greater or fewer animal related incidents according to whether or not the building is pet-friendly.
Objective 8, which draws attention specifically to homeless youth, should also incorporate plans for addressing youth with animals. The research shows that homeless youth often have animals for companionship and protection, and that they are more likely to have positive feelings about a provider and their engagement experience if the provider is friendly towards their animals. Innovative youth programs like Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets in Seattle, WA can be looked at as a model for incorporating and allowing animals on-site in drop-in centers and co-sleeping situations.
For those of us who experience the reciprocity of loving and caring for an animal, surrendering our animals is unthinkable. So, we hope and work to see a day where the culture of homeless services institutionalizes practices that engage and include us and all of our family members, including those with fur. To go back to your vision, "No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home." A house is not a home. Home is safety. Home is where our relationships thrive. And for some of us, home is where our dog is.
To submit your own feedback to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, visit their call to strengthen their plan. The comment period ends on November 15, 2017.