Serving both ends of the leash: Catholic Charities USA and Best Friends Animal Society help formerly homeless clients and their pets

Given the choice to receive shelter and medical services versus remaining homeless, most people would choose the support. But what if you had a beloved pet that you had to give up in order to get the support? That’s a deal breaker for many people experiencing homelessness, because they want to remain faithful to their pets that have remained faithful to them.

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) and Best Friends Animal Society are working together to honor the relationship between people experiencing homelessness and their pets. The two organizations decided to collaborate when they realized that their goals intersected with each other.

CCUSA’s Healthy Housing Initiative works to end chronic homelessness by providing stable housing and wraparound services at or near the housing units. Some people return to the streets because they are not sick enough to stay in the hospital and they lack housing. The Healthy Housing Initiative solves this dilemma not only with housing and medical care but also through other services like job training and financial education. The program helps people achieve health and self-sufficiency.

Best Friends works to save the lives of pets in animal shelters and to preserve the human-animal bond by allowing pets to remain with their families. A major reason pets are surrendered to animal shelters (where they face euthanizing) is housing restrictions. Best Friends promotes pet-inclusive policies that allow more pets to be adopted and that prevent unnecessary separation from their families.

The effects of COVID-19 have increased dramatically the number of people and pets facing homelessness. According to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, 85 million U.S. families own a pet. An estimated 30 to 40 million people and their pets are at risk of eviction due to COVID-19. These two statistics form the basis for the collaboration between CCUSA and Best Friends.

“We’re serving both ends of the leash,” said Elizabeth Oreck, national coordinator of Best Friends’ housing initiatives. Oreck noted that Best Friends already advocates for “no-kill” policies that save the lives of pets and promotes adoption nationwide. Working with CCUSA, which has Catholic Charities member agencies across the country, Best Friends shares best practices and relevant resources with Catholic Charities staff so they can better serve formerly homeless clients who do not want to forgo their pets.

Best Friends points to Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa (CCSR) as a good example of an agency with pet-friendly shelters. In 2016, CCSR transitioned its shelters from accommodating service animals to accepting all pets. The agency trained their staff, consulted with veterinarians, wrote a protocol for animal processes (rabies certification, spaying/neutering, etc.), and accumulated supplies through donations.

Even agencies that do not allow animals in their homeless shelters, respite centers or other housing units can still help clients with pets. Best Friends provides Catholic Charities staff with local resources that offer clients ways to care for their pets: Services such as pet food pantries, access to veterinarians, and even temporary foster programs that place pets with families while the clients are hospitalized or receiving other treatments.

CCUSA and Best Friends launched a pilot program at Catholic Charities Eastern Washington (CCEWA) in Spokane. CCEWA is working with SpokAnimal, a humane society in Spokane and one of Best Friends’ shelter partners, to provide services to clients with pets. In addition to pet food, veterinary care and emergency surgeries for pets, SpokAnimal offers a “Guardian Angel” program that provides free boarding for pets whose owners are temporarily unable to care for them. CCEWA and SpokAnimal are even providing the pet owners with valuable work experience. SpokAnimal operates a thrift shop where CCEWA clients may volunteer. The proceeds of the shop support the care of animals. Best Friends also provided grant funding and donated 500 collars and leashes to the partnership.

Moving forward, CCUSA and Best Friends plan to publish a guide for other agencies and organizations that want to provide pet-friendly services to clients. The guide will take a “big picture” approach, identifying resources and services that may not be well known. Items such as the location of animal shelters, spay/neuter clinics, examples of pet policies, pet food pantries, and guardian angel programs will be provided.

Most people have either experienced or witnessed the positive effects pets have on their owners, from service animals to the family dog or cat. CCUSA and Best Friends have seen the same thing with formerly homeless people, which is why both organizations want to facilitate that good relationship as much as they can.

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