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Pet homelessness rises with foreclosures

 "Homelessness is the number one risk factor for companion animals in the United States. These animals die for no other reason than the mere fact that they, for whatever reason, lack a home," says ASPCA President & CEO Ed Sayres in an April 2010 statement.

American house pets are unforeseen casualties in the wake of the worst depression since 1930 with 1.6 million foreclosures currently pending (http://www.foreclosurepets.org/about-us/). When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Americans were furious when distressed homeowners were told they couldn’t take their pets with them during the mandatory evacuation. As a result of the ensuing news coverage and public outrage over pet owners being forced to leave their pets behind, Congress enacted the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006, requiring state and local agencies to ensure pet welfare before, during and after a major disaster or emergency.

Unfortunately, no laws are currently in place to protect pets abandoned or relinquished to shelters when owners lose their homes to foreclosure or eviction. So it’s left to grassroots efforts by local shelters and rescue organizations to take in the influx of strays.

“On any given night, approximately 750,000 men, women, and children are homeless in the US,” the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported in 2007 and over 13 percent are families. 44 percent, or 330,000 people, have no shelter.http://www.thechicagoalliance.org/homelessstats.aspx In Illinois, “While the overall homeless population has decreased, the percentage of individuals identified as the “chronic homeless” … has increased to 26%”, indicates Chicago 2007 Point-in-time Count Report.  

The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Housing Action Illinois, and the Supportive Housing Providers Association stated in a March 24, 2010 report "that unless the State of Illinois passes comprehensive tax reform, even more people will lose their housing and become homeless. The state budget crisis has reduced funding for homeless programs by nearly $10.7 million or 23%. These cuts impact over 15,000 adults, teens, and children annually." 

People who become homeless and have pets are in a bind with few resources for their pets. The Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, Inc. (NEMCSA) reports from their 10-year study on homelessness in northeastern Michigan that many homeless people do not want to give up their pets. Some families face eviction from rental housing when a landlord discovers they have pets, NEMCSA reports.

Pets are so important. Sometimes it is the only thing these people have to love,” a homeless motel operator reported to to NEMCSA. “There is probably not a lot of societal sympathy for this dilemma, but it should be brought to the forefront and looked at because it IS an issue.”

Pet owners facing foreclosure or eviction frequently are unable to take their pets with them when relocating since apartments or other rental units do not allow pets. And if they do, there is often a restriction against dogs over a certain weight. What options does a caring pet owner have when they are faced with imminent homelessness?

Dr. Boris Levinson, Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University and a clinical psychotherapist, stated in his 1997 book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy: “In this very busy twentieth century, man is a lonely creature. There are too many alienated individuals who lack human companionship. They lack purpose and productivity. A simple addition to these lonely lives can sometimes accomplish major changes. The possession of a pet, who eagerly awaits one and responds to one's care and attention, may mean the difference between maintaining contact with reality or almost total withdrawal into fantasy. Literally, a pet can occasionally represent the difference between life and death.” 

Illinois does not appear to have any shelters that allow pets, nor is there evidence of a plan to establish shelters that allow pets. Lazarus House, a St. Charles shelter for people, does not permit pets and says there is no way they could accommodate pets due to legal restrictions. The Lazarus House representative was unable to identify one shelter that allowed pets and offered no alternatives.

PAWS Chicago (Pets are Worth Saving) Executive Director, Rochelle Michalek, relates similar findings which is why PAWS established Crisis Care Programs in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. Michalek says they will take pets into their Foreclosure and Eviction Program for temporary housing with one of their over 100 volunteer foster families where they will be spayed/neutered, micro-chipped and made current on their vaccinations if necessary. “We put these animals into foster (care) until the owners can find a new place to live that will allow them to be reunited with their pets. … We’ve supported people from as little as one week and up to four to five months depending on the situation … and the owner was able to collect their pet,” Michalek says. Though some owners choose to relinquish their pets to PAWS knowing that PAWS will take good care of them, Michalek adds.

As part of PAWS Chicago’s mission to make Chicago a “no-kill” city and address the economic crisis, PAWS has joined forced with PetCo where their Pet Food Bank provides three-months worth of food and supplies for people who need assistance, Michalek says. In 2009, Michalek says they donated over 29,000 pounds of food and helped 745 animals. Engaging the community and local businesses ultimately is what is going to offer solutions and help, Michalek says.

S. Elgin's Anderson Animal Shelter’s Director of Humane Education, Anna Friedman, says the number of animals being dumped has actually declined as “it was more so the case a year ago … There seems to be a decrease in animals being dumped … I think there are more programs now … to help with the transition (from losing a home to foreclosure).” However, Friedman adds there are still high incidents where an animal is being given up due to foreclosed homeowners having to make a choice between feeding themselves or their pets.

Although Anderson doesn’t operate any formal transition programs for foreclosed pet owners, Anderson does donate food that it can’t use for one reason or another. Friedman says some human food banks are now providing pet food and cat litter.

Michalek agrees that while relinquishments due to eviction or foreclosure seem to have eased, PAWS is still seeing a lot of cats being relinquished, often due to the mistaken belief that cats are better equipped to fend for themselves. Right now, Michalek says, “we have well over 200 animals in foster care.” Michalek says when dogs do come in, “we have seen significantly more dogs with heartworm than we have historically … people are no longer providing heartworm medication—it’s expensive.”

Kane County Animal Control Administrator, Mary J. Lawrie, says she too saw more pets being surrendered due to foreclosure two years ago, though the pet owners were vague about the reasons for surrendering the animal. In retrospect, Lawrie surmises they were too embarrassed to reveal their bad financial circumstances, whereas today, pet owners who must surrender a pet are more forthcoming about their circumstances. “Within the last year we’ve had more individuals calling us and asking for help,” Lawrie says.

Owners of animals that are old or with behavioral or medical problems face difficult choices because these animals are not good adoption candidates. With shelters frequently full, it’s particularly hard to find homes for elderly pets, says Lawrie. And even if euthanasia seems the more humane choice, often owners can’t afford the cost, which ranges from $100 to $500, depending upon burial/crematory options.

Lawrie says, despite the poor economy, “We have been fortunate in that we have a good network in place … We have had tremendous response from the Kane County community … to adopt animals—even some older animals that we determine are medically sound enough to be placed for adoption. We have had people come in to say they saw the two 10-year old cats on the web site, and because they were a bonded pair, they wanted to be able to give them the opportunity for maybe another 10 years of life.”

Friedman says Anderson also saw an increase in people relinquishing pets with medical needs, like one dog that was relinquished because the owner could not afford a $2,000 surgery to repair an injured leg.

Unfortunately, says Friedman, treatment in such cases is oven delayed, causing the animal to suffer more. Friedman says, “I think the medical care outside of spay/neutering and vaccination is a huge area that’s lacking … We would love to see some low cost vet program created.”

St. Charles area shelters, Anderson Animal Shelter and Kane County Animal control, encourage qualifying pet owners to seek PAWS Chicago’s assistance: (773) 935-PAWS.

Lawrie also recommends the following to people facing foreclosure or eviction who have pets:

1. Well in advance of the eviction date, talk to family and friends to see if they might provide temporary shelter.
2. Contact a licensed shelter to get on a waiting list.
3. Place an ad in your local newspaper, but remember to indicate a cost, so dog fighters or animal researchers aren’t interested.
4. Contact your vet, especially if he is familiar with your pet, since he might know of someone willing to adopt the animal.
5. Contact kennels and boarders where they can be boarded temporarily.
6. Contact your mortgage company to see if they can offer assistance.
7. Last resort—consider that euthanasia may be the kindest option for your pet if the animal is not a good adoption candidate.

Photo:  By Ana Muller, courtesy of Pets of the Homeless

Other useful resources:

National Alliance to End Homelessness
http://www.endhomelessness.org/
http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/illinois.html
http://www.foreclosurepets.org/
http://www.petsofthehomeless.org/

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