City Takes Steps to Accommodate Pets in Homeless Shelters



Midtown West Shelter, Covenant House. Photo: Anna Phillips

After more than two years of review, the New York City Council voted unanimously on Aug. 26 to approve two bills that aim to increase homeless shelter accessibility for people with pets.

Aside from emotional support and service animals, pets are currently not permitted in most city shelters. This means unhoused people with pets must either give up their companion or, in some cases, remain in unsafe situations. The bills, Intro 1483 and Intro 1484 will require the Department of Homeless Services to create a plan to accommodate pets in New York City shelters. The plan includes acquiring more shelter facilities that allow pets, permitting pets in existing facilities, exploring temporary placement options and creating a health and safety protocol. The bills will also require DHS to publish data on the number of people who apply for shelter housing with a pet, as well as information on the placement of pets who are given away when an individual enters a shelter.

Proponents are hailing the passage of these bills as a crucial step toward providing feasible housing options to all New Yorkers. Critics, however, fear that this change could wreak havoc on an already overburdened shelter system.

“For so many people, their companion animal is their family, their home. And when someone is already moving everything else in their life, to take away their source of family and companionship is frankly cruel,” said Elizabeth Adams, legislative director for Council Member Stephen Levin, who introduced the bills.

Each night, roughly 50,000 people sleep in New York City’s homeless shelters, according to DHS. Thousands more, however, are unsheltered and sleeping outside, according to advocacy group, Coalition for the Homeless. The group cites lack of pet-inclusivity as a main obstacle that prevents people from seeking shelter.

Benjamin Loucks, 23, has been homeless for four years and lives on the street with his dog, Zeus. He said he has tried to apply for shelter with DHS, but was told he would have to surrender Zeus.

“People are so quick to judge me and tell me that I should give him away,” said Loucks. “I would say to those people, would you give your children away? Would you give your own pets away? Zeus is like my child. He’s my family. I can’t just get rid of him.”

Loucks said he fears his desire to keep Zeus will keep him out of the shelter system and stuck in a cycle of homelessness.

“I can’t get a job because I can’t bring him to work, but I have nowhere to leave him during the day. If I could bring him into a shelter, I could get a job. It would be easier to get back on my feet,” said Loucks. “My dog shouldn’t be hindering my entire life.”

The Urban Resource Institute, an organization that provides one of the only pet-friendly domestic violence shelters in the city, noted that these bills will also have a large impact on victims of domestic violence. According to the institute, 50% of domestic violence survivors would not consider shelter for themselves if they could not take their pets.

“A number of people who are living in abusive relationships are unable to leave because they can’t take their pet with them,” said Adams. “People are being turned away, people are being denied access to the temporary housing they need because of their companion animals.”

Reisa Weinstock, president and CEO of Animal Care Centers of NYC, a city-funded animal shelter, also supports the bills.

“We applaud the passage of these bills as an important step toward keeping people and pets together, and in so doing, helping both,” said Weinstock in an e-mail statement.

Some shelter staff and residents, however, fear that integrating pets into a shelter environment will be too burdensome.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Jamil Mbouombouo, who stays in the Covenant House, a Midtown West shelter. “If you allow pets, it could be chaotic. People could have allergies and pets would make things difficult for them.” 

Adams noted that while DHS expressed some concern that allowing pets would be “too onerous or restrictive on providers,” the city council worked closely with the Urban Resource Institute to gain insight into procedures that allow shelters to successfully accommodate pets.

While Adams said she understands the hesitancy, she believes that the bill gives DHS ample flexibility to tailor protocol to the individual needs of each shelter.

“The bill is not a one size fits all approach. It allows for flexibility to make it work in different layouts, different structures. It’s cognizant of that, it’s not just restrictions without understanding what the situation is. We have to do it, because we are leaving too many people behind,” said Adams.

DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

The bills automatically took effect on September 26, after Mayor de Blasio’s 30-day period to act on the legislation expired. DHS now has 180 days to propose its own plan to the city council.