LOS ANGELES — Being homeless in Los Angeles and battling addiction is hard enough, but Rachel Niebur couldn’t imagine enduring it without her dog Petey.
Niebur credits her constant companion, an energetic black and white Chihuahua mix, with helping her avoid drugs and giving her a reason to get up in the morning.
“She needs me. She focuses me. I have to feed her. I have to walk her. It’s a real relationship,” Niebur said, before following Petey to the small, fenced-in dog park on the shelter’s grounds. in the district of Venice where the lovebirds have been living for about two years.
Traditional homeless shelters have long been pet-free, leaving pet owners who want to get off the streets with a stark choice. But as homelessness increases in the United States, those working toward a solution are increasingly recognizing the importance of companion animals to vulnerable populations and looking for ways to keep owners and pets together.
When given the choice between sheltering in or abandoning their pets, homeless people will almost always choose to stay on the streets, said Tim Huxford, associate director of the Venice facility that now houses Niebur. and Petey.
“So we always want to reduce the number of barriers that we have for people to get them off the streets,” he said. “We realize that pets are like family to people.”
The Venice shelter run by the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, was the first of its kind in Los Angeles County to allow residents to bring pets, Huxford said.
Through a state grant, PATH has a budget for food, crates, toys, and veterinary services through an initiative called the Pet Assistance and Support program. In 2019, the pilot program provided $5 million to nonprofits and local jurisdictions, and that amount doubled the following year. The pending legislation would make the grant program permanent, while expanding it statewide.
State Senator Robert Hertzberg, who drafted the bill that would expand the program, estimates that about 10 percent of homeless Californians have pets. And the reason many shelters don’t accept pets is simply because they don’t have the resources to care for them, said dog owner Hertzberg.
He called pets “our comfort” and cited research that animals provide companionship and a sense of purpose to people who are homeless.
The Los Angeles Democrat said it’s just “raging common sense” to give nonprofits and other caregivers the budgets they need to feed and house pets, especially considering how much California is already allocating to address the statewide homelessness crisis.
“We spend a billion dollars here to get people off the streets; why not spend a few dollars there to set up veterinary services, food and dog crates? These are subsidies between 100,000 and $200,000, not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things,” Hertzberg said.
The money would come from the state’s general fund, so it won’t cut into any existing funding, Hertzberg said. The measure, SB513, passed the state Senate unanimously in January and now awaits consideration by the Assembly.
The California law is part of a broader national recognition of the issue.
In Arizona, for example, there are several organizations that care for animals for residents who are struggling to get back on their feet.
A non-profit, non-profit shelter called Lost Our Home provides up to 90 days of care for homeless people while they seek permanent housing following a crisis such as eviction, domestic violence or medical treatment.
Don Kitch runs one of several shelters operated in the Phoenix area by the nonprofit Family Promise, among the few that allow people to keep their pets in a separate animal area on site. He said his shelter currently houses four dogs, two cats and a guinea pig.
“Unfortunately, there are very few facilities here that allow pets,” Kitch said.
He said many shelters allow service animals and, less frequently, emotional support animals.
Kitch said the Arizona Humane Society takes in pets for 90 days to give their owners time to find stable housing, while the Sojourner Center allows victims of domestic violence to keep their pets at the shelter.
Kitch said Family Promise used a grant from PetSmart to start its foster pet program. He said he would welcome a law like California’s because “anything that covers costs would be ideal for a nonprofit homeless shelter like ours.”
The national nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society has partnered with Catholic Charities USA to promote programs that keep homeless people and their pets together. The Feeding Pets of the Homeless group holds veterinary clinics and drives for donations of pet food and supplies.
The ASPCA and other animal welfare groups are urging passage of the California bills.
“The ASPCA believes that financial circumstances alone are not reliable indicators of the ability to love and care for a companion animal and that pets are an incredible source of support and companionship in our lives. , especially during times of stress and uncertainty,” said Susan Riggs, the ASPCA’s senior director of housing policy.
One of Petey’s canine companions at the Venice PATH facility is Champ, a pit bull mix that his owner Ro Mantooth calls the shelter’s “mascot.”
“He really is my best friend. I don’t know what I would do without him,” Mantooth, 29, said of Champ. “I’m lucky to have her. There aren’t many places that allow pets, you know?”
In addition to Petey and Champ, there are eight other dogs and a cat at the Venice shelter. Huxford said another PATH facility had a parrot in a cage. Technically, there are no rules about which animals can be allowed in, he said, but that has yet to be tested.
“If someone came with an elephant, I guess we’d have to see,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.