Keeping New Yorkers and Their Pets Together in Shelters

More and more people are abandoning their pets to city-run shelters due to housing insecurity — and in response, the city’s nonprofit animal protection and control agency has hired social workers to help New Yorkers keep their best friends.

New York Animal Care Centers brought in two counselors in April to work on special cases and kept dozens of pets out of animal shelters, according to Jaime Kruse, senior director of community resources. .

“A lot of the time when we talk to these customers, they just want someone to talk to,” Kruse told THE CITY. But ACC staff lacked the training to communicate with people facing special challenges, so they created the social worker positions, he said.

“As normal lay people, we don’t always have the skills or the training to communicate effectively with people in these situations,” Kruse said.

When people come to shelters to bring their cats and dogs (as well as guinea pigs, turtles and rabbits), the reception staff now know that they also need to pay extra attention to humans. Staff members look for situations and scenarios like a mental health crisis or signs of domestic violence before referring them to social workers.

Since the program began in April, the ACC social services team has worked on 181 cases involving 347 animals, Kruse said.

The most common situation ACC faces is pet owners entering homeless shelters, which clients across the city have experienced 44 times since the spring, according to shelter data. for animals. Homeless shelters generally do not allow animals to accompany their owners.

“Over the last few months we’ve really started to see an increase in the number of people facing financial or housing difficulties,” he said.

People often seek to give up their pets when eviction is looming, they’re in domestic violence situations, or they’ve been hospitalized or imprisoned, Kruse said.

ACC, formerly known as NYC Animal Care and Control, hasn’t been able to help every person keep their pets, Kruse said, but since the program launched, 70 clients have stayed with their pets. pets and 14 have rehomed their pets with their families. or friends.

Cats have more cats

Affordability issues, from housing to health care, are the top reasons New Yorkers separate from their furry friends, according to ACC data.

Will Zweigart, co-founder of Brooklyn-based animal rescue group Flatbush Cats, said his organization was raising money to build an affordable veterinary clinic to help with the sometimes high cost of caring for pets — including the need to sterilize or sterilize them.

“Pet owners who find these cats outside but don’t have access to affordable veterinary care – these cats are going to have more cats,” he told THE CITY. “There’s a huge affordability gap – that’s why you’re seeing a massive increase in buyouts.”

A shelter for victims of domestic violence includes space for their children and pets.

Housing insecurity is a tandem problem. Currently, about 53,000 people live in city-funded homeless shelters, according to the city’s most recent data. But for years most people who came in couldn’t bring their pets.

In 2019, no pets were abandoned due to eviction, according to ACC data shared with THE CITY. In 2020, the number increased to 37 pets and in 2021, the number was 66, according to ACC data. Already this year, 94 pets have been abandoned due to evictions.

Last year, the city council passed a bill expanding access to shelters for people with pets, requiring the city to report cases where a person abandons their pet when entering a shelter. .

Deedra Cheatham has been reluctant for years to leave an abusive partner for a number of reasons, including questioning where she could go with her beloved red-eared turtle, named Danny-Lee.

But she eventually felt safe enough to leave her 15-year relationship after hearing about a pet-friendly homeless shelter in Brooklyn.

She entered the city-funded residence run by the nonprofit Urban Resources Institute in 2018, along with her two children. Shortly after, Danny-Lee joined them after his brother smuggled the turtle out in a bucket while the ex was at work.

“I was adamant that I wouldn’t leave my pet turtle behind,” Cheatham, 39, said in May when opening the organization’s first shelter in Queens.

Urban Resource Institute, the nation’s largest domestic violence services shelter operator, now operates nine pet-friendly shelters in New York City through its People & Animals Living Safely, or PALS, program. In total, they have 234 residential units for families with pets.

“That’s how I started to heal”

Typical city Department of Homeless Services shelters only allow a person to bring a pet if it is an emotional support animal or service dog, at the following detailed documentation from a mental health professional, Kruse said. Even after a person or family is officially allowed to bring an animal, they can still be placed in a shelter that does not allow pets.

And if a person is allowed to bring a pet, there is a waiting period to ensure the animal is healthy and vaccinated. In all of these scenarios, pets are usually brought to an ACC facility first.

Kruse’s team helps pet owners get into shelters with necessary service animal paperwork or apply for special accommodations in the city, he said.

For residents of domestic violence shelters, being able to bring their pets with them is a crucial part of their recovery.

“When I got her to safety with us, she was calm,” Cheatham told THE CITY of his pet turtle. “That’s how I started to heal – my kids started to heal.”

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Jennifer R. Strohm