In the mid 2010s, social worker Christine Kim was working for a housing first program, an initiative that was innovative for its time and prided itself on low-barrier access to its services.
A resident that she worked with confided a secret: He had his dog, a miniature poodle, with him in his single occupancy room — a move that violated the program’s no pet rule. “This dog was just the love of his life,” Kim, an animal lover herself, recalls. “I understood that this was an important bond for him.”
For people experiencing homelessness and facing domestic violence, the inability to separate from the pets they love, and who love them back, is an often-overlooked barrier to getting housing through social services or leaving the home they share with their abuser. So in 2017, Kim founded My Dog Is My Home, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping pet owners in need of social services united with the animals they love.
While working as a social worker on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Kim was struck by how many pets she saw in the area. “A lot of dogs but other types of animals, too—some people have cats with them in their tents and in their encampments, even rabbits and birds,” she says. “I just started to wonder how many folks are out there in their tents but missing the opportunity to get into either emergency shelter or housing programs or are forgoing other types of services because they can’t bring their animals with them?”
When her client confessed that he had his beloved poodle in his room, Kim got an exemption to keep the man and his pet together using the reasonable accommodation mechanism within the Americans with Disabilities Act. But that couldn’t be the solution for everyone.
Kim found the process of proving a disability distasteful. “We should just assume that [for] people experiencing homelessness, that the animal provides them with emotional support,” she says. “Why do we have to make them prove that? We should also understand that trauma is a really ubiquitous experience for people who are experiencing homelessness.” That trauma, she argues, should also count as a legal disability.
When Kim wrote a blog post about the experience for the now-defunct Animal Museum, where she was volunteering at the time, it blew up. The blog led to an exhibition that led to her nonprofit, My Dog Is My Home.
It’s through the work of My Dog Is My Home that Kim began her efforts to work on helping shelters become pet friendly in order to increase access to shelter and housing. The organization accomplishes its goal in three ways: storytelling to raise awareness, coalition-building to create a peer-to-peer support network of pet-friendly service providers, and direct technical assistance to help individual providers become pet-friendly if they need more help than the coalition provides.
Beyond the human-animal bond not being taken seriously enough in general, there are other challenges that My Dog Is My Home works to reduce.
“There’s a very real challenge that [service providers] are not even fully funded to care for the human population that they serve,” she says. Plus, there’s naturally a lack of education and training about running pet-friendly services.
Through My Dog Is My Home’s services, providers learn how other coalition members have dealt with challenges and logistics like liability issues. My Dog Is My Home’s direct support puts providers in touch with local and national pet services to coordinate the provision of supplies like food, leashes and beds.
“If the coalition isn’t enough for a provider to get over the hump of transitioning their facilities, they can work with us on specific things,” Kim says. “This is basically whatever the provider needs — anything from loose conversation about an idea to feedback on a policy or resource coordination in their community. We can help with identifying those resources all the way down to customized trainings.”
Danielle Emery is the People and Animals Living Safely (PALS) director at the Urban Resource Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit that’s the largest domestic violence service provider in the U.S. Even though the Urban Resource Institute has had pet-friendly shelters since 2013, Emery was ecstatic to discover My Dog Is My Home in 2018.
“It was really exciting to learn about them, just to know that there were other providers across the country working on this issue,” she says. “There is a lot of research that has shown that survivors who are in an abusive situation who may be considering leaving or seeking safety will delay doing so because they’re not able to bring their pets or don’t know how to get help for their pets because they’re scared for their pet’s safety.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 71% of pet owners who enter domestic violence shelters report that their abuser had threatened, injured, or killed family pets, 52% of domestic violence victims have had to leave their pets with their abusers. Up to 40% of abuse victims are unable to leave their abusers because of concern for their pets.
“The ability to stay with pets [is important] not only so they can seek safety, but so that they can remain together through that crisis and… have that consistency and support while they’re going through that traumatic experience,” Emery says.
Her biggest piece of advice for fellow service providers who want to become pet-friendly is to not be afraid of starting small. The Urban Resource Institute started by accepting just cats at one of their shelters. With some additional funding they were able to make a second shelter pet friendly and start accepting dogs.
Today, nine of URI’s 14 shelters accept any pet that’s legal to own in the United States. “Even just asking about pets or having connections to resources for [pet] food pantries and veterinary care helps. It doesn’t necessarily have to start with full-on co-sheltering,” she says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.