The Homeless

Despite lots of barking and one bad bite, dogs still welcome at winter homeless shelter

On an average day inside the city’s winter triage homeless shelter on Railroad Drive, burly pit bull terriers trot on leashes, eager for their walks. Dainty chihuahuas lounge on bunk beds next to their owners. Dogs of all colors and varieties yap from their crates.

In an effort to lure chronically homeless people inside this winter, the city has allowed residents to bring their pets with them. Despite some pandemonium, officials said, the approach has proved mostly successful. In some cases, men and women who have resisted entering shelters for years or even decades because their pets were unwelcome have moved into the converted warehouse in North Sacramento with their companion animals.

However, the experiment has not been without complications. Three dogs have been involved in biting incidents severe enough to prompt the city to impound them, records reviewed by The Bee show. All three dogs bit humans. One of those dogs is being evaluated as a potentially dangerous animal that might be put to death. The other two have been quarantined but are not considered dangerous.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s working,” Jaycob Bytel, spokesman for Mayor Darrell Steinberg, said of the city’s approach to sheltering homeless people this winter. “Allowing pets to stay with their owners has been a critical part of getting chronically homeless people to come in, which is exactly what we had hoped to do.”

More than 100 dogs and eight cats have come out of the cold and with their owners since the shelter opened in early December, said Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator.

The facility’s “low barrier” strategy for attracting longtime homeless people means that residents not only can bring their pets, but are allowed to sleep next to their human partners, and can store possessions that include bicycles, tents and other items inside the warehouse. Those concepts are mostly new to Sacramento.

“It has never been done here on such a large scale,” Halcon said. “But these are hallmarks of other successful triage shelters,” including those in San Francisco. Allowing pets “was very purposeful,” she said, “and we are grateful that Volunteers of America embraced it.”

VOA staffs the facility, which operates 24 hours a day and provides meals, showers and help with housing and social services in a dormitory-like environment.

The city’s Front Street animal shelter has provided veterinary services, including spay and neuter surgery, flea treatment and vaccinations, for cats and dogs living in the building.

Initially, VOA staffers considered keeping resident animals in crates on one side of the building at night, while their owners slept in bunk beds on the opposite end of the shelter. “But we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work,” said the agency’s Christie Holderegger. “These animals are support and comfort for our guests. They wanted to be with their pets.”

Animals are allowed to sleep near their owners at night, either in crates if they are larger dogs or in bed with their human companions if they are smaller, Holderegger said. Guests are required to be responsible for their animals, including cleaning up after them, feeding and walking them and guarding against altercations with other canine and feline residents.

“Sure, barking happens, and there are ‘accidents’ that need to be cleaned up,” Holderegger said. “But our guests have been very responsible with their animals, and the majority of dogs all get along.”

Jace Huggins, chief animal control officer for the city, said the three winter triage dogs involved in biting incidents remained under quarantine last week at Front Street.

According to records, two of the bites occurred at the shelter and a third happened off site.

The most serious incident occurred last month, when a pit bull terrier mix named Lil Red lunged at a resident while the dog was leashed near the building’s entrance. The victim was taken to the emergency room for a leg wound about 6 inches long and 4 inches wide, according to records.

Based on the circumstances and severity of the bite, the city has declared Lil Red to be a dangerous dog and is recommending that it be destroyed. The owner is appealing the decision, and a hearing likely will be held on the dog’s fate in the near future, Huggins said.

The other two dogs, whose bites were considered minor, may be reunited with their owners once they are up to date on vaccinations and have been spayed or neutered.

Huggins said he does not consider the number of bites involving the winter shelter’s canine residents to be excessive. The three incidents, he said, account for a small percentage of all dog bites investigated by his agency since the shelter opened.

“Some of these dogs were being raised in very tumultuous environments,” outdoors at homeless encampments, said Front Street manager Gina Knepp. “They are very protective of their owners, some of whom are struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and other problems. Given all of those things, I’m surprised that it has gone so well and we haven’t seen more chaos.”

The shelter was originally scheduled to close on March 31, but officials are discussing keeping it open beyond that date. The city next month will present a comprehensive report to the public about the shelter’s operations, including its experience with both people and pets, Halcon said.

“I’ve been in a lot of shelters, and I think that given our size, the speed at which we were up and running, and the high level of need of our guests, it has been a success,” she said.

VOA has learned that pets tend to have a calming effect on their owners as well as other shelter residents, Holderegger said.

“Our homeless guests really want to make this work,” she said. “Many of them are more concerned about their animals than themselves. They love them unconditionally. They are their family.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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