‘People love their pets whether they’re in a house or not’ Inside the Sacramento triage shelter
Julie Hemingway refused to go to a homeless shelter unless she could be with her cat, Tammy. She didn’t want to be separated from the gray tabby, who’s registered as Hemingway’s emotional support animal, in order to get off the street.
She said she camped by the Taco Bell on Northgate Boulevard for three weeks, with nowhere else to go, until a “wonderful” police officer came and told her about the triage shelter in North Sacramento. She’s been there, with Tammy, since early October.
“I would not have come here when the police officer showed up if I couldn’t be with her,” Hemingway said. “Here, these people are angels of mercy.”
The Railroad Drive facility, run by Volunteers of America, is the only shelter in Sacramento that allows displaced people to live with their pets. Beds are organized in pods of eight to ten, with living and storage space for each shelter resident. Many beds have pet crates at the foot.
The shelter on Railroad Drive has been open since last winter, and the city just voted to keep the shelter open through April, though its capacity will be reduced.
Animal services like medical care, licensing, vaccinations and spay and neuter procedures are available to the pets at the shelter. The services are provided by the city’s Front Street Animal Shelter, which also provides services to homeless pet parents at their headquarters near Old Sacramento.
Front Street recently received a $100,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to keep up its work at the shelter. Gina Knepp, manager of animal shelter, that the PetSmart Charities donation is a good sign that large animal welfare groups are paying attention to the plight of homeless pet owners.
“We learned in Katrina that you can’t just take people out of their homes and not give them resources for their animals,” Knepp said.
Knepp said that people are always going to have and love their pets “whether they’re in a house or not.” Because of that, she said, animal care services are necessary in the homeless community.
“Most pet owners have very close bonds with their animals,” Knepp said. “Sometimes that’s all they’ve got.”
Veronica Venzke has been at the shelter for about six months with her dog, Biggie, a large pit mix with a meaty head and a shiny gray coat. Venzke said she’s still looking for housing, but in the meantime she wishes for a dog run to turn Biggie loose in, so he can run off leash.
Before she came to the triage shelter, Biggie wasn’t licensed or neutered, but Venzke said Front Street got it taken care of right away.
Knepp said that every new animal that arrives at the shelter gets paperwork done to match them to their owner, so they don’t get separated.
They also get flea treatment, shots and, if necessary, the shelter can provide muzzles. Knepp estimates that her group has served 300 shelter pets in the last year.
“We started with 100 crates, and it wasn’t enough,” Knepp said. “At one point we had 200 people and over 100 animals.”
Knepp said that they offer spay and neuter services to everyone, and the response is “overwhelmingly yes,” with few exceptions.
They teach the shelter’s pet parents how to disinfect to prevent pet disease, and have a trainer available on Fridays to help train their pets. The idea of the training, Knepp said, is to teach responsibility for the animals, to teach good pet behavior and to deepen the pet-owner relationship so that it’s easier to adjust when they transition into long-term housing.
Hemingway chose to get Tammy spayed and chipped. The vet, Hemingway said, even gave her some calming drops to give Tammy when it gets stressful for her — she’s one of very few cats at the shelter.
Tammy walks on a leash, and Hemingway said she’ll walk right up to the big dogs and will touch their faces with her paws.
Hemingway also runs a nonprofit called ES Advocates, which helps disabled, homeless and displaced people live with their service animals without extra fees. She hopes to build it up and focus on veterans — Hemingway served in the ’80s — after she finds reliable housing.
“The more you help others, the more it helps you,” Hemingway said. “I’ve got the Lord and my kitty. That’s all I need.”