New NYC Laws Expanding Access to Pet-Friendly Shelters Will Help People and Pets

September 10, 2021

a woman hugging a cat wrapped in a blanket

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker and NYC Councilmember Stephen Levin

There’s no doubt that pets are vital members of our families—giving and receiving precious love, companionship and support. This bond strengthens over time and is especially valuable during stressful moments as immense as the COVID-19 outbreak and as personal as a family crisis. 

But that strong bond is tragically and needlessly tested when pet owners who are homeless encounter rigid shelter housing rules requiring them to separate from their pets or stay on the streets. The prohibition of animals in New York City shelters, drop-in centers, and transitional housing programs has been a devastating barrier for people who love their pets as deeply and responsibly as pet owners in any community or income bracket.

Thankfully, on August 26, 2021, the New York City Council passed two bills that will expand co-sheltering options so people and their pets can stay safely together.

  • Intro. 1483 requires the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), in collaboration with the Department of Social Services, to develop a plan to accommodate pets of individuals and families who are homeless by providing pet-friendly shelters. 
  • Intro. 1484 requires DHS to deliver a monthly report on the placement or disposition of pets who belong to people who enter homeless shelters. The compilation of such data will be crucial as the agency works toward making pet-friendly services available.

Understanding the Bonds Between Pets and People

Keeping people experiencing homelessness and their pets together—whenever possible and appropriate—should be prioritized by our government and society because it benefits vulnerable animals, people, and animal shelters whose resources and available space may be stretched thin. But establishing that priority starts with accurately understanding the bonds between pets and people and treating all pet owners with respect and dignity, regardless of their life circumstances. 

Some mistakenly assume that people who are homeless care less about their pets than other pet owners do. But, in fact, surveys of pet owners who are homeless reveal a level of attachment to their pets that may be even greater than the bond reported by pet owners who live in traditional residences [PDF]. 

Another assumption is that the pets of people experiencing homelessness are likely in poor health, but a recent study of 1,124 records of dogs and cats seen by veterinarians between April 2018 and March 2020 suggests that the health of pets owned by homeless and vulnerably housed individuals is generally good and comparable to other populations of owned pets

When lives are at stake, it’s also important to understand that homelessness can result from many factors, including domestic violence, disasters and emergencies, and unlawfully maintained apartment dwellings.

Protecting Survivors of Domestic Violence

One of the key benefits of co-sheltering is the protection of domestic violence survivors. A report from leading domestic violence shelter and service provider Urban Resource Institute (URI) and the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that half of domestic violence survivors will not leave an abusive relationship because they cannot take their pets with them to seek safety. In 2013, URI created the breakthrough PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program to enable domestic violence survivors to bring their pets with them, protecting both their lives. 

When PALS was created, no domestic violence shelter provider in NYC accepted pets. URI now has animal-friendly accommodations at eight facilities, which have enabled more than 325 families—including 450 cherished pets—to escape domestic violence.

The Power of Partnership

In addition to its partnership with URI, the ASPCA collaborates with several human service providers and city agencies, including Animal Care Centers of NYC, the NYPD, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Breaking Ground, which creates high-quality permanent and transitional housing for the homeless, to provide other pet care services to people with limited financial means. These services include spay/neuter surgeries, veterinary care and pet food.

The breadth of this work illustrates how partnerships among animal welfare, human service agencies, and law enforcement can help more people keep their pets. And in addition to preserving those families, keeping pets and owners together reduces shelter intake and allows more efficient and effective use of shelter and law enforcement resources. 

On behalf of New York’s pets, people, and communities, we thank Speaker Corey Johnson and the New York City Council for taking this lifesaving step, reinforcing values of compassion, inclusion and humanity throughout the city.