Mia, an 8-year-old dachshund, barks loudly when strangers enter her owner’s apartment.
But soon, she’s licking Pamie Hathaway’s nose and asking for belly rubs.
Hathaway says that in her years of homelessness, Mia was a source of comfort and strength. She calls her dog her baby, her girl.
Hathaway had attempted suicide three times while she was homeless before she adopted Mia. She never attempted again, she said.
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“The only reason that stopped me I believe is because of Mia,” Hathaway said. “I couldn’t desert her like that. What would happen to her? She’s the only thing that kept me going.”
Because of experiences like Hathaway’s, Inter-Faith Ministries now plans to make its Inter-Faith Inn the first shelter in the area that accepts pets. The Inn is a 24-hour shelter with 52 beds for homeless individuals and families.
They expect to begin accepting people with pets by the end of summer or early fall, said Christen Sampamurthy, program director.
It’s highly unusual for homeless shelters to accept pets. Many don’t even adhere to federal law regarding service animals, said Genevieve Frederick, who works with the national nonprofit Pets of the Homeless.
Part of the reason is that many homeless shelters are overcrowded, she said.
“That’s just extra space they can use for other people that don’t have pets,” Frederick said. ”But shelters are realizing there is such a need.”
Pets of the Homeless estimates that like Hathaway, 5-10 percent of homeless people have dogs or cats.
A facility behind the Inter-Faith Inn will be converted into a boarding space that can hold three to five animals, depending on size. The shelter will accept cats and dogs and will cover boarding costs.
“Our ultimate goal is that we’ll be able to take people off the streets that otherwise wouldn’t seek services,” Sampamurthy said.
Being homeless with a pet caused difficulties for Hathaway, who now lives in an Inter-Faith apartment with her dog.
The winter before she moved into her apartment she spent some time in Inter-Faith’s emergency shelter, but had to leave Mia in a van outside. If she had moved into the Inter-Faith Inn, she couldn’t have kept Mia.
Instead, she mostly slept outdoors: under bridges, in doorways, in car ports.
Many homeless people receive emotional support from their pets, Hathaway said. In her case, Mia will often curl up close to her when she’s in a difficult place, or will give her kisses when everything is OK again.
“It’s like she’s trying to pull me out of something,” Hathaway said.
People with pets will want the services Inter-Faith offers, she said. For many, giving up their pets is simply not an option.
“When you’re out there, homeless, you can’t rely on another soul,” Hathaway said. “You rely on yourself. You can’t rely on another human being. But you’ve got that loyal pet and they’re going to be there for you.”
Although the details of how pets will be boarded at Inter-Faith are still being fine-tuned, the Inn will likely admit people with pets on a few days a week when a veterinarian is present. That veterinarian will make sure that the pets have been vaccinated and are safe for other animals and their owners. The veterinarian will be able to give vaccinations on site.
While the pets won’t be in the main shelter area, it will be like they are right “in the backyard,” Sampamurthy said.