How Las Vegas is helping unsheltered pet owners: ‘Always keep the animals in mind’
When Renee Benoit lost her housing, one of her most immediate concerns was how to keep and care for her two service dogs, Cinnamon and Oreo.
Would temporary shelters allow pets? What about camping? Could Cinnamon and Oreo stay safe and healthy in an unfamiliar situation?
“I was scared,” Benoit said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go. I do get disability, but it’s hard to get a place on your own without help.”
Luckily, Benoit found her way to the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center in downtown Las Vegas, where she discovered amenities provided by Urban Underdogs, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to providing food, aid and supplies for pets belonging to veterans, seniors, low-income families and underserved populations.
Though she is still searching for permanent housing, Benoit said the kennel at the Courtyard and support from Urban Underdogs has given her a way to keep her family together.
“Being here, it’s really helped me out,” she said.
Most shelters do not allow pets and require people to downsize their belongings. Pets and belongings create a sense of home for many individuals and having to give them away or leave them behind contributes more stress and anxiety during an already traumatic experience.
For many individuals, losing a pet is equivalent to losing a family member and for those who rely on service animals for mental health support or physical aid, the situation can have devastating consequences.
Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher, a community resources manager with the City of Las Vegas, said when the city opened the courtyard, it deliberately set up a place for pets so clients would not have to make a decision between keeping their pet or having a place to stay. The space is not limited to dogs and cats. Bluitt-Fisher said tortoises, guinea pigs, birds, sugar gliders and other pets have also used the facilities at the center.
“Pets are like family, and no one wants to have to make that sacrifice or that decision to split up their family in order to come into services,” Bluitt-Fisher said.
At the center, clients are responsible for providing fresh water and food to their pets, cleaning out cages and other daily tasks. Individuals can board a pet at the center, but stay in another shelter or somewhere else entirely. Urban Underdogs helps provide pet food, harnesses, waste bags and other necessities.
In November, the city received a $20,000 grant for the pet kennel from the Better Cities for Pets grant program supported by Mars Petcare, a pet food branch of the candy bar company. City officials hope the funds will help continue to provide basic pet supplies and expand support for unsheltered people’s pets. Some of the money will also go toward helping people pay pet rental fees and pet deposits, Bluitt-Fisher said.
“Sometimes apartment complexes will charge a pet rental fee or a pet deposit. So it's hard enough to come up with the money to just move into your own place, let alone money on top so you can move in with your pets,” she said. “So we'll be able to assist some of our homeless clients with paying those fees as well.”
Lisa Craighead and Suzanne Saccento have experienced that struggle firsthand.
With assistance from an aid organization, Craighead said she found a room where she can stay, but she would have had to leave behind her dog, Joy Joy.
“My case manager said ‘Well, just foster them or just give them away,’” Craighead said. “This is my child. I've had her six years and I've only been homeless two years. It's not her fault I ended up here and just to give her away or to put her to death, just doesn't make sense to me.”
Saccento said she was kicked out of a rental house three years ago when she could not keep up with rent, and since then has been working toward finding an affordable place to live. So far, every option would require her to leave behind her dog, Johnny.
“He’s my life. I love him so much. He's never bailed out on me,” Saccento said. “There wouldn't be anything in this world that I wouldn't do for this boy. Never, ever, ever would I abandon him or give him to somebody else.”
Craighead has heard horror stories from individuals who fostered their pets including instances of pet abuse or having a pet stolen. She said she could not imagine losing Joy Joy.
“It would be easier for me to take the housing and throw her away,” Craighead said. “But I won’t throw her away for that.”
The space and resources for pets at the courtyard have been a blessing, Craighead added, noting that she lost housing when she was 57 and having a safe place for Joy Joy to stay alleviates some of her daily stress.
She hopes government officials and other groups working with unsheltered populations will continue to think about the needs of pet owners when addressing shelter and housing problems.
“Always keep the animals in mind and make sure they just have a space,” Craighead said. “To some people it may not be much, but it's enough for us to get by.”