photography by Angelina Aragon; Lost Our Home marketing and development manager Vanessa Cornwall feeds Baby, the cat of a couple experiencing homelessness

Home is Where the Cat Is

Written by Ashley M. Biggers Category: Valley News Issue: August 2018
Group Free

Pet ownership can cause and intensify homelessness, Valley aid organizations say.

When Leslie Galbraith and her husband Kai met Cheese Puff at a Valley shelter, his time was almost up. Cheese Puff was an apt name for the orange cat, who weighed more than 15 pounds. Despite his affable nature, he’d lingered in the shelter for months. The Galbraiths knew they had to bring him home. “We promised him we’d give him a good and loving home,” Leslie says. But when Kai lost his job laying concrete, and the hotel room they could afford with it, the Galbraiths found themselves in a tenuous situation.

They lived in their old Ford Ranger truck – along with Cheese Puff. They’d put a harness on him and walk him at a park so he could stretch his legs, but there was little space for the threesome. The couple was welcome in shelters. Cheese Puff wasn’t.

The Galbraiths were suddenly among the estimated 5-10 percent of homeless Americans who have dogs and/or cats, according to national advocacy organization Pets of the Homeless. According to Phoenix Rescue Mission, some 25,000 people in Maricopa County are experiencing homelessness, so as many as 2,500 people could be doing so with animals. Because pets aren’t welcome in most shelters, owners face a choice: Take care of themselves and lose their pets, or live on the streets and keep Fido.

Owning a pet can lead to homelessness if people lose pet-friendly housing and are unable to quickly relocate. Jodi Polanski, founder and executive director of Lost Our Home Pet Rescue, says pets can also hinder people transitioning out of homelessness. “Most pets are not allowed in public buildings. Homeless people have a hard time getting into a shelter, where services like showers and the ability to pick up mail are available,” she says. “All of those resources are cut off from them.”

In general, pets aren’t allowed in shelters because of the associated liability. Relying on grants and donations to stay open, shelters aren’t able to finance insurance to handle the risk of issues such as dog bites or people with allergies or fear of animals.

As a result, people often forgo shelter to stay with their pets, which only exacerbates their situations. Why do they care for a pet if they’re in a difficult situation themselves? “Their pets are their best friends, their confidants, their family,” Polanski says. “If you don’t have much love in your life, you don’t want to lose a pet that provides it.”

That was the case for the Galbraiths, who see Cheese Puff as a family member. They took advantage of Lost Our Home’s temporary care program. Cheese Puff only stayed a month, but he could have stayed up to 90 days in the program. That month of care allowed the Galbraiths to stay in a Tempe shelter, find new employment and get settled in their new home in Tucson.

Polanski founded Lost Our Home Pet Rescue at the start of the recession in 2008. A mortgage banker at the time, she witnessed firsthand how the housing crisis left thousands of pets abandoned. Now the non-profit welcomes pets needing care because of a variety of circumstances, including foreclosure, eviction, domestic violence and hospitalization. The organization provides care for abandoned or owner-surrendered pets, a pet food bank program and a low-income boarding program, as well as the temporary care program.

In its decade of operation, it’s helped more than 22,000 pets, including adopting out 4,600 pets and returning 750 to their owners. “They were amazing. They didn’t judge us because we were homeless and hadn’t showered in three days,” Galbraith says. “They were just glad to see us every day when we came to see our cat.”

For the Galbraiths, knowing Cheese Puff was waiting got them out of the Ford Ranger and into permanent housing. “He’s given us a reason to go forward,” Leslie says. “He’s the reason we didn’t give up.”

SAFE PET HAVENS
Sojourner Center
Lost Our Home Pet Rescue teamed with this domestic violence shelter to house eight dogs and eight cats. LOHPR volunteers care for pets and help with behavioral issues. Since the shelter opened in 2015, they’ve served 163 pets and 109 families. lostourhome.org

Family Promise of Greater Phoenix
A PetSmart grant funded Family Promise’s pet center in 2012. “Before our pet sanctuary, parents would refuse shelter – a path to independence – and choose homelessness. This should never be a barrier for families who just need the time, resources and love to stabilize and work toward sustainable housing,” says Lisa Randall, manager of community relations. Since 2012, the sanctuary has housed 136 pets. familypromiseaz.org

Other pet food bank programs:
Chuck Waggin’ Pet Food Pantry – chuckwaggin.org
Empty Bowl Pet Food Pantry – emptybowlpetfoodpantry.org