With El Niño looming, more homeless and their pets will find shelter

Area shelters are increasingly allowing pets indoors with their owners to get people inside and connected to the shelter system.

Local authorities are expanding the number of beds for the homeless in anticipation of El Niño. But where to keep their pets if storms force them inside?

Arranging overnight beds and permanent housing are a higher priority than finding lodging for animals, but area shelters are increasingly allowing pets indoors with their owners to get people inside and connected to the shelter system.

Reducing that barrier for homeless pet owners is part of an array of changes recently made in the Bay Area that help more people get indoors. Making changes like allowing Fido or Scruffy to sleep at your bedside, distinguishes the area for an increasingly innovative approach to homelessness. Few other parts of the country seem to be so open to pets at shelters, according to Genevieve Frederick, founder of Pets of the Homeless, a national advocacy organization. Lowering this barrier brings a few more individuals into the social services system, and allows people to live more like they would if they had their own home.

More than half of San Francisco County’s 6,700 homeless are unsheltered. The percentage of unsheltered homeless individuals in Santa Cruz County is 69 percent and 71 percent in Santa Clara County. Local advocates cite skyrocketing housing costs and the mild climate as reasons people remain outdoors. But pets are another reason the area has one of the highest rates of homeless individuals sleeping outdoors in the country.

“When a shelter does accommodate people’s pets, they are almost 100 percent more likely to come in,” said Claire Wagner, director of communications for HomeFirst Services of Santa Clara County, one of the largest shelter providers in the county.

“I do think that the barriers are slowly being broken down,” Wagner said. “There are still a lot of people who have multiple pets who are having a problem [finding permanent housing]. It makes it harder to find a place. It’s already so hard in Silicon Valley to find a place.”

Antonia Gonzalez sleeps in a tent off Story Road in San José with her three puppies. She has had a housing voucher for a year, but has had trouble finding a place that will accept her with three pets.

Sitting at the roadside, she clutched two of her three small dogs, Chihuahua mixes, all with black fur, one shivering despite his tie-dye shirt. “They’ve become like our children, so we’re not going to get rid of them to get into an apartment because we’re not going to get rid of our babies.”

Many homeless individuals decide the streets are more comfortable than shelters, where there are more restrictions and rules.

“They’re huge dormitories. You’re sleeping on an open floor with hundreds of other people, living in a crowd,” Wagner said. “It can be traumatic and distressing for dogs to go into shelters. All the noise and strangers.”

For some pet owners, choosing to stay with their dogs trumps finding a roof for themselves, because of the benefits a furry member of the family brings. “Some people use them because they’re lonely, some people use them for medical reasons,” said Gonzalez, as her dogs sat patiently in her lap.

Navigation Center in San Francisco sets pet-friendly shelter trend

Nationally, 10 percent of homeless individuals own pets. Local advocacy groups don’t maintain such pet statistics for the Bay Area, but few homeless shelters accept furry friends without a note from the doctor explaining that a pet is a “companion animal,” for mental health or support reasons.

One exception is the Navigation Center, a new shelter opened in San Francisco in March. The site allows pet owners to bring in their furry friends even without a medical note declaring them companion animals.

Obama’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro visited in October. He oversees the federal government’s efforts to house the homeless. “Allowing people to come in as couples, or with their dogs, might be unusual,” Castro said. “But these are the practical, smart policy adjustments people need to make.”

At the shelter’s wide-open courtyard with planters and residents’ paintings, just off 16th and Mission streets, 75 residents can mingle with 10 dogs, a cat and a rabbit.

Most of those homeless individuals were sleeping on the street, often in encampments, before outreach workers invited them to the pet-friendly shelter. This is one of the Navigation Center’s attempts to lower even the seemingly small barriers by allowing what they call the three P’s: pets, partners and possessions.

That means allowing couples to stay together, guests to bring pets and multiple bags or suitcases of personal belongings. People in these situations are less likely to enter into the shelter system, according to Julie Leadbetter, the center’s executive director. Once people are staying at a shelter, they can be more easily connected with health, government and housing resources, she said.

So far that means the Navigation Center is constantly full. “The word is out,” Leadbetter said.

For a year, Chris Dodehenoff slept in the doorway of a San Francisco mortuary near the intersection of Sutter and Larkin Street. Smiilee, his fluffy white rabbit, would sleep in her carrying case by his side. He soon found himself the owner of a Chihuahua mix named Candie. In June, he moved to the Navigation Center.

“I’m glad to be alive, and I’m glad they’re here to share it with me,” Dodenhoff said on a recent Thursday, Candie barking in his lab.

On-site social workers are helping him apply for permanent housing, which he hopes to have by year-end.

The current Navigation Center is set to close by June, when new construction begins on the site for a 160-unit complex, all for affordable housing. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has already pledged $3 million to build a new center at another location, but the pet-friendliest homeless shelter in the Bay Area would be shut down in the meantime.

Brian Greenberg, vice president of programs and services at InnVision Shelter Network, which operates a dozen Bay Area shelters, said accommodations for pets are not the highest need of the homeless, but are significant in connecting some of the hard-to-reach individuals who may not want to get off the streets.

Other shelters allow pets on a case-by-case basis or are building additions. InnVision Shelter Network plans to double the size of its Maple Street shelter in Redwood City from 75 to 150 beds by next spring and will add an outdoor kennel at the shelter to open services to unhoused individuals with animals.

But even if the temporary housing issue could be resolved with more pet-friendly shelters, finding permanent housing for homeless people with pets could still be a challenge.

To be sure, Greenberg said, all of these additional accommodations for individuals living on the street calls for great effort from the homeless individuals as well.

“It’s extremely difficult for unsheltered homeless people to secure housing anywhere,” Greenberg said. “And to try to find a landlord that wants to provide housing for a homeless person with a history of serious [health] problems, with their pit bull, is almost impossible.”

More shelters add kennels

Kara Ries, a 14-year-old Girl Scout from Portola Valley, and her mother, Sally Ann Ries, have fundraised $3,000 and plan to raise another $1,000 to finish building a kennel attached to Project WeHOPE shelter in East Palo Alto. They are soliciting donations at projectwehope.org.

“She asked what she could help with, and we told her, pets, that’s another barrier to homeless people coming in here off the streets,” said Pastor Paul Bains, director of the 50-cot overnight shelter.

The shelter is a large basketball court during the day turned into an overnight shelter at night. A modest kitchen and a few showers support 50 people who sleep on cots in the warehouse-like setting. Just out back, past the outdoor patio, a small cement slab with wood fence will be used as a kennel.

Ries, who spoke while her border collie walked around her feet, hoped the addition would prevent individuals from deciding between the shelter and their animal companion. “Pets are always going to be there,” Ries said. “Companionship is really important when you don’t have anyone and you’re on the streets.”

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