Cohousing as a Solution

Brown and white dog laying on floor

Pets can be indispensable sources of emotional support and security. When a person is experiencing a traumatic event, such as losing housing or experiencing violence in their home, they may perceive giving up a beloved pet as a worse outcome than staying in an unstable or dangerous situation.

Two demographic groups are particularly impacted by the lack of pet-friendly housing: those experiencing chronic homelessness and those experiencing domestic violence. In both cases, the ability to keep a beloved pet when moving to a safe, stable setting, may be a life-or-death choice. Far too often, individuals must decide between their pet and the ability to access safe and stable housing. This can be an agonizing choice for many, because a pet may represent support, security and companionship, especially during times of stress.

Cohousing (or “co-sheltering”) is a type of housing that ensures that pets and people can stay together despite having emergency housing needs. This form of sheltering is a tenet of “low-barrier” facilities, which do not require people experiencing homelessness to separate from loved ones in order to access emergency housing. Cohousing can take different forms, including having a designated on-site animal housing area within an emergency sheltering facility. However, when possible, it is recommended that pets stay in the same room as their people in order to preserve the human-animal bond and reduce fears around losing the pet.

Unfortunately, much of the housing created in prior decades to provide a safety net for those experiencing emergency housing needs was not designed to accommodate pets. The body of research has grown exponentially in recent years validating that by allowing pets, shelters remove a significant barrier to ensuring safe and stable housing for both the chronically homeless and victims of domestic violence. This research provides evidence that the availability of cohousing opportunities can save lives.

Retrofitting existing homeless and domestic violence shelters to accommodate pets is a cost-effective and lifesaving solution that allows pets and their people to stay together. There are already a number of successful models around the nation in which shelters have used low-cost fixtures and equipment to ensure that pets can continue to provide much-needed support and companionship for those experiencing trauma.

Shelter operators interested in designing and developing pet-friendly programs and services or seeking to improve current practices can learn from animal welfare organizations and from examples in which pets are part of a shelter environment. Specifically, to ensure a smooth transition to cohousing facilities, animal welfare organizations can provide expert support in animal behavior, co-shelter design and access to veterinary services.

Case Study: California’s PAS program

The State of California has established a highly successful model for creating cohousing with its Pet Assistance and Support Program, which has been funded with general fund monies on two occasions. The first round was funded in 2019 at $5M and received applications for twice that amount. As a result, the state committed an additional $10M to the program in 2021. Again, the number of applications far exceeded the budgeted amount for the program. The grant amounts were originally established at $100k to a maximum of $200k per grantee. And, in interviewing the first-round grantees, we have received feedback that the investments are generous in allowing the facilities to provide not just the necessary retrofitting, but also to provide support to both the owners and pets to ensure the long-term success of each in permanent housing. For example, eligible uses include behavioral support, food, equipment (leashes, collars, etc.), and short-term pet-sitting to accommodate clients’ supportive service appointments. The California model has demonstrated that a relatively modest investment can make a big difference in the lives of those experiencing emergency housing needs, and ultimately save lives—and we believe similar investments in other states could affect the same transformational change.

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