Plans advance for Philly shelter to welcome pets along with people in need

A man sits on a cot, his dog at his side

Greg Crockenberg settles in at a code blue shelter at Woodside Church in Yardley, Pennsylvania, with his dog Sarah. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

A Philadelphia woman is hoping to build the city’s first homeless shelter that also welcomes pets.

Stephanie Sena founded Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia six years ago with several Villanova University students. But, over that time, Sena’s noticed a big problem: People will refuse shelter if their pets can’t come with them.

“It’s freezing cold outside, or ‘Code Blue.’ We can’t get them to come inside because it would mean being separated permanently from their only companion,” she said.

It’s a difficult calculus for those in dire need. Part with the animal, and it may go to a pet shelter where it will likely never see its owner again. Or stay outside in terrible conditions, but keep the pet.

“In making that calculation, people will choose to stay out on the street even if it means freezing and dying rather than being separated from their animal,” Sena said. “So that’s been devastating for us to witness over the years.”

So she’s trying to raise $75,000 via GoFundMe to buy a building in Center City where people can take shelter along with their animals.

Veterinarians have already volunteered to help out, said Sena who said that caring for a pet can improve mental health because they establish routine and safety.

“Their animals really provide this incredible source of safety, of comfort,” she said. “It’s something that ties them to their world prior to becoming homeless.”

It’s easy for the more fortunate to make judgments about people keeping animals with them while homeless, she said. But it’s important to remember that someone experiencing homelessness hasn’t always been homeless.

More often than not, “at one point, they had a home, and in that home they had a dog. And they lost their home for a variety of reasons,” Sena said. “But when they lost their home, they still had their pet companion with them.”

According to Project HOME, about 15,000 people — including families — access shelter in Philadelphia each year. But many individuals are turned away from shelter due to a lack of space.

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