A dog might be man’s best friend, but for many people experiencing homelessness a dog may also be their only friend, only family and only source of support, which is why giving them up for a shelter bed is often out of the question.
This was the certainly the case for Cruz Carillo who waited three years on the streets until a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) caseworker found a shelter willing to house him and his dog Toby.
“Humans will stab you in the back all the time, but he’s always been there and I don’t have any family,” said Carillo. “He definitely knows how to cheer me up all the time and through the worst of the worst times.”
Toby and Carillo are now happily residing in the Los Feliz Bridge Home. His shelter is operated by People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), which unlike many other homeless service providers, allows pets in its shelters.
Now PATH has partnered with the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority and state Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) to put forward AB 1215, a bill that would make it easier for shelters to accommodate and care for pets statewide.
“We have to understand that animals create an environment for people to keep feeling like they have something to live for,” said Andrea Carter, director of interim housing at PATH. “For us to create any type of hurdles (to entering shelter) is not being understanding to the person and their relationship with their animal. … These animals give them warmth, they give them protection, they offer unconditional love.”
Rachel Niebur with her pet dog at the Venice Bridge Home. This shelter, operated by PATH, is one of the few in LA County that allows residents to bring pets. (Photo by Todd Smith) LAHSA estimates that five to ten percent of the roughly 70,000 homeless in Los Angeles County own a pet, meaning the proposed legislation has the potential to be a game changer for thousands who might otherwise be rejected by shelters. The impact on the California homeless population, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development estimates to be nearly 180,000, could be dramatic.
“As California looks for solutions for unhoused people across the state, we should not force individuals experiencing homelessness to choose between keeping their animal companion and obtaining urgent access to shelter.” said Carrillo in a written statement.
“AB 1215 is a local solution that works to assist our unhoused population in feeling comfortable when seeking temporary housing — a solution that directly addresses a hurdle to thousands when seeking temporary housing,” she added.
If enacted, the bill would reestablish state funding for pet food and veterinarian services at homeless and domestic violence shelters statewide.
These vet services can often be lifesaving. That was the case for Carillo and his dog Toby, who developed a severe and reoccurring ear infection. But Carillo could not secure medicine while they were living in a tent.
“By the time we got into the shelter his ear was really bad and they had to cut it off,” said Carillo. “If it wasn’t for my caseworker I don’t know if we would have gotten any help — and he probably would have died. I’m really happy that I ended up here because I know I wouldn’t have been able to take him to other shelters.”
Cruz Carillo and his dog Toby at the Los Feliz Bridge home. This shelter, operated by PATH, is one of the few in LA County that allows residents to bring pets. Carillo was living in a tent for over three years until he was able to find a shelter that would accommodate him and his dog. (Photo courtesy of Cruz Carillo) Carillo has not had an easy time in life. He immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles when he was ten, but had tense relations with his family and was kicked out at 17. He survived for several years by working at McDonalds and living in an RV in Sun Valley. But after his RV was stolen he resorted to a tent.
“It was rough, but honestly having the dog helped a lot because I wasn’t depressed or anything,” Carillo said. “I was kind of lonely, and being out on the streets and having him by my side would sure cheer me up.”
Despite the close relationships between many homeless people and their pets, it has been a longstanding policy at most shelters to allow only pets that are certified service animals, said Carter, at PATH. That is partly because shelters are already stretched thin taking care of human residents, and don’t have the resources to care for their pets.
This is why more funding for veterinary services is sorely needed, she added. There was state funding available through the Pet Assistance and Support Program, but it dried up in 2022 and shelters were left to cover the expenses or partner with nonprofits. AB 1215 would reestablish the grant program and provide $32 million in state funding over the next three fiscal years.
The money would be used to provide many pet services including grooming, dental care, vaccinations, nutritious food, flea treatment, first aid and more.
The bigger goal is that shelters find permanent supportive housing for their residents with pets. That’s challenging because there is a shortage of such housing. But groups like PATH have had many successes.
Greg Gussnar was allowed to bring his dog Penelope to the Venice Bridge Home operated by PATH and is now living with his pet in a permanent unit in Venice.
Greg Gussnar and his dog Penelope in the permanent supportive housing unit that PATH helped them move into in Venice. (Photo by Gabrielle Jablonski) “My dog Penelope calms me down a lot when I get anxious,” said Gussnar. “She’s always been a constant companion to me and I love her so much. It’s been really nice to have a place to have my dog.”