How Co-Sheltering Improves Shelter Accessibility
Many homeless shelters have policies that explicitly forbid clients from bringing their companion animals with them when they enter. This creates a dilemma for individuals who could benefit from the services provided by a shelter, but are hesitant to part ways with their companion animals. Research has shown that the presence of a companion animal can lessen feelings of loneliness, encourage daily routines, and support sobriety. This study examined four organizations that assist homeless individuals as well as their companion animals. Its goal was to investigate the strategies that are actively in use, and help apply similar measures at other homeless shelters, thus minimizing the number of animals surrendered because their caregivers experienced a period of homelessness.
The researchers carried out interviews with staff members, residents with companion animals, and residents without companion animals at four homeless outreach organizations to produce a qualitative study. One of these organizations; located in Los Angeles, California; had three geographically distinct shelters, leading to a total of six sites being included in this study. In the examined shelters, only between 5-10% of clients had companion animals.
Most of the sites had few regulations in regards to bringing companion animals into shelters. The researchers found that many people would rather stay out of a homeless shelter altogether than be forced to abandon their companions: whether or not an individual could remain together with their companion proved to be a significant factor in many individual’s decisions to enter a shelter or not. With this in mind, the authors note that policies that are accepting of companion animals (even if they require more effort and resources on the part of the shelters) can lower barriers to shelter entry and encourage people to seek assistance.
The researchers also discussed existing confusion on the part of both staff and clients on what legally and practically constitutes a companion animal (a “pet”) versus an emotional support or service animal. Some shelters require proof of vaccinations and a letter from a health care provider that confirms the animal is a support or service animal, while others do not. Most of the organizations also stated that there was a lack of clarity in how to define “adequate care” for companion animals. Many of the shelters studied have agreements with local veterinary medicine practices to provide complimentary or reduced-rate veterinary care to companion animals in the shelter; however, guidelines for how and when to intervene in a case of abuse or negligence towards a companion animal were not well established at many shelters.
Space and health concerns and concerns about potentially aggressive animals were mentioned by staff members, but these factors had not been significant issues in any of the shelters at the time of this study. Interviewees agreed that staff should be trained on how to address issues in which the presence of a companion animal threatens the safety of other human or nonhuman shelter residents. Staff members and shelter clients alike noted the sense of community and responsibility brought to the shelters by the presence of companion animals and agreed that the presence of support animals can have substantial benefits to the wellbeing of a human client.
Overall, shelter clients felt that rules regarding companion animals were fair, although many of the interviewed clients stated that they believed a special screening process should be in place to ensure that the companion animal will be able to behave appropriately in the shelter. This study found that co-sheltering companion animals with their human guardians is a feasible strategy that can lower human barriers to entry into shelters. Developing this co-sheltering strategy further at other shelters will benefit both humans and the companion animals for whom they care.