Transitioning to a Low-Barrier and Pet-Friendly Shelter Model: Catholic Charities Santa Rosa

November 13, 2018  |  Publications


Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa (CCSR), part of the national network of Catholic Charities organizations, provides day services, senior services, immigration assistance, health and economic wellness programming, and homeless services in northern California. CCSR operates three shelters, each serving specific populations:

  • Samuel L. Jones Hall (SLJH) offers shelter for up to 123 individual adults and couples without children. It is the largest full-service shelter in northern California and provides congregate living in dorms with up to 70 beds each.
  • The Family Support Center (FSC) has 138 beds for families with children in both congregate and private rooms. It provides case management, employment/housing counseling, referrals for medical screenings, and other support services.
  • Nightingale is a short-term medical respite shelter with 26 beds.

In 2016, CCSR shelters began a three-part transition: first to a low-barrier model, then to accommodate service animals, and finally to accept pets at their individuals shelter.

Transitioning to Low-Barrier Housing-Focused Shelter

CCSR decided to change their shelter model to one that accommodated residents regardless of their needs. They were motivated to make this change based on trends happening inside and outside of their shelters:

  • Their region of California was experiencing an increase in older, chronically homeless individuals.
  • The overall homeless population was growing, and it no longer made sense to screen people out of accessing their services.

Shelter leadership was committed to the idea that the most vulnerable should not be barred from services. However, the transition to a low-barrier model would require broad community and organizational buy-in. CCSR shelters had become de facto long-term programs instead of a short-term place to stay during a housing crisis. Many of the shelters’ protocols only reinforced this: CCSR shelters had six pages of arbitrary program rules that imposed numerous restrictions but failed to help individuals or families in shelter find housing.

Shelter leadership wanted to flip this structure to empower individuals, provide safe emergency shelter, and — like an emergency room — prioritize the most vulnerable.

Accommodating Emotional Support and Service Animals

As part of the transition to a lower-barrier shelter model, CCSR began allowing service and emotional support animals into the shelters to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fair Housing Act. Prior to this shift, people were asked to find other arrangements for their service animals before they entered the shelter.

All the shelters underwent significant planning before accepting service and emotional support animals. They trained staff to work with animals, consulted with local veterinarians to better understand their capacity for accepting animals, and wrote a protocol for service and emotional support animal processes. The shelter also began accumulating crates, leashes, and kennels through donations so that service and emotional support animals could stay indoors and outdoors.

Accepting Pets at CCSR’s Individuals Shelter

Accommodating support animals helped CCSR and its partner outreach team understand  that animal separation was one of the most comment reasons unsheltered individuals were avoiding shelters.

Moreover, CCSR’s success in accommodating emotional support and service animals made it clear that accepting pets was feasible. In fact, if the CCSR individuals shelter, Samuel L. Jones Hall (SLJH), wanted to serve more unsheltered individuals, they would need to make similar accommodations.

How it Works: Animals at Samuel L. Jones Hall (SLJH)

The shelter partnered with the outreach team to communicate this shift to people sleeping on the street. The outreach teams noticed that people who had been resistant to emergency shelter for years because they could not bring their animals were coming in for the first time. SLJH used the following guidelines in accepting pets:

  • SLJH only accepts dogs and has no limits on the size or breed of the animal.
  • The only restrictions on dogs are behavior-based:
    • If a dog is aggressive or violent on the street, they are not allowed into the shelter.
    • Instead, the outreach team works with the owner to facilitate the animal’s move into fostering while the person enters the shelter.
  • Currently, the shelter does not accept cats unless they are a service or emotional support animal.
  • Animals are allowed into the shelter if they have a rabies certification, are spayed/neutered, and are not otherwise a threat to public health and safety.
  • It is the responsibility of the owner to keep the dog with them at all times and on a leash when they are out of the crate or kennel.

Physical Accommodations for Animals

When shelter residents arrived with service animals or pets, SLJH initially placed the animals in outdoor kennels. However, this felt too far away to many of the owners, so the shelter began supplying bedside crates for the animals to sleep in. The outdoor kennel is still an option if the owner wants to leave the shelter and ensure the animal is secure. There are designated areas on the property for the owners to walk their dogs.

The shelter staff intentionally assigns individuals to specific dorms based on several factors including ownership of an animal. This helps to separate animals from those who have animal allergies or fears.

Although pets are allowed in the shelter, they are not allowed to roam freely throughout the space. It is the responsibility of the owner to clean up after their animal.

SLJH has experienced a few incidents, but nothing unmanageable. If an animal and its owner do not meet their responsibilities or the animal is a threat to safety or health, the staff engages the owner to fix the issue. If the staff is unable to help the animal successfully stay in the shelter, they facilitate the fostering process while the individual stays in the shelter.

Helping People with Animals Find Housing

CCSR shelters are housing-focused and work to help residents move back into permanent housing. That includes assisting residents with pets. Staff have encountered barriers to securing permanent housing when assisting those with animals: Some landlords don’t want to take pets and others charge a pet deposit fee. Shelter staff approach this barrier as part of their housing navigation role. They help residents connect with pet-friendly landlords and pay the security deposit if needed. Staff also takes time to educate landlords about the ADA and Fair Housing Act so that they know their legal obligations to accept service and emotional support animals.

Partnering with Local Organizations to Accommodate Animals

CCSR has many partners that make this work possible. A local mobile veterinarian clinic travels with the outreach team to spay/neuter and give animals rabies shots so that they are eligible to enter the shelter.  The outreach team also partners with the local animal control agency to perform wellness checks on animals staying with their owners on the streets. This is a helpful engagement tool and builds trust between the outreach workers and the unsheltered animal owners.

If a person presents to the shelter with an animal, the animal can receive vaccinations and spaying/neutering from a local clinic with transportation provided by the shelter. The shelter also partners with local veterinarians and the animal control agency to receive donated leashes, crates, kennels, and medical services.

Opportunities and Challenges

One of the challenges that CCSR faced was the belief among staff that residents in crisis needed a more restrictive environment in order to maintain safety. Shifting to a low-barrier shelter model required CCSR to look outside of their community for models to follow and learn from. Importantly, CCSR significantly expanded staff capacity and began raising funds to support their expanded services.

To build staff buy-in for the low-barrier model, shelter leadership included all staff in the year-long implementation process and instituted a weekly meeting to review what was and wasn’t working. They brought in consultants and leaders in other communities to reassure the staff that they were going to make it through the transition. In addition to training on de-escalation, conflict resolution, and motivational interviewing, the staff was trained around the ADA and how to work with service animals.

Switching to a low-barrier model and accepting animals brought new challenges to the shelter. SLJH had been high-barrier for so long that they needed assistance from the outreach teams and other community partners to communicate to people living on the street that the shelter was now more accommodating.

Lowering the barriers to shelter and accommodating animals has encouraged people to finally enter shelter, even if they had avoided it for years. Now, the most vulnerable people have an opportunity to enter the shelter and find an end to their homelessness through permanent housing.