The holiday season reminds us that home is where the pet is. Just ask the homeless huddled in highway underpasses in Los Angeles, women fleeing domestic violence in New York City, families in Minnesota too poor to pay for veterinary care, and homebound seniors in San Diego who must depend on others to bring them meals to eat.

Pets don’t care if their human companions are poor, old or ill. The healing power of pets benefits people of all backgrounds and circumstances. That’s why pioneers in the animal welfare movement across the country are unleashing innovative programs to enable people who love their pets to keep them even if they are struggling financially, physically or emotionally. That benefits pets not only materially but also emotionally, by ensuring that their lives are filled more with love and less with fear, anxiety and stress.

Here are four examples of people helping struggling pet owners.

“What drives animals being surrendered to shelters is not, for the most part, due to people who are being neglectful to their pets. It is a poverty issue,” says Lori Weise, founder and executive director of Downtown Dog Rescue, a non-profit that helps the homeless and people struggling financially through its Shelter Intervention Program in the Los Angeles area. “Tragically, some people surrender their pets to animal shelters because they feel like they have no one to call, no car, no health insurance or no money to pay for veterinary care.”

A homeless man named Benny serves as the source of inspiration and motivation for Weise and the expanding SIP program. She met him about 20 years ago when he used his limited resources to feed two abandoned dogs.

“What Benny and I had in common when we met was our love of animals,” she recalls. “Programs like ours are helping pets stay with the people who love them.”

Since 2006, the Helping Pets and People in Crisis program operated by the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, has been there for victims of domestic violence and others facing major life challenges.

“Our first case was to help a mother with two children who were fleeing an abusive husband/father. They were not able to take their beloved Miniature Pinscher with them but they did not want to leave her behind with their abuser,” says Steve Gruber, director of communications. “We found a foster home for the dog while the family found temporary housing in a domestic violence shelter. Each weekend for nine months while they awaited permanent housing, the family visited with their beloved dog. The mom said these weekly visits with their dog held the family together and made the unbearable situation bearable for her children.”

Kim Carrier created the Minnesota-based People and Pets Together program in 2009 out of recognition of the powerful role pets play in people’s lives. Her group works with other agencies to provide pet food, pet supplies and subsidized vaccination clinics to low-income individuals.

“I faced some health struggles in 2008 that reminded me that I’m not invincible and this helped me develop empathy for other pet owners who might be having a tough time with finances,” she says. “I used to be filled with judgment about people living in poverty that I perceived were not caring for their pets. Then I got ill. I was in danger of losing all I had worked so hard to provide, but all I cared about was figuring out how to stay with my two dogs. They made me get out of bed, surrounded me with warmth and loved me when I didn’t have much to give. Our tagline says it best, ‘We know pets are family.’ ”

San Diego County is the site for two innovative programs created by the team at the Helen Woodward Animal Center: Animeals and Pets Without Walls. Together, these programs reach out to provide meals for shut-ins as well as clothing, pet food, preventive veterinary care, pet vaccinations and pet supplies for homeless families living in San Diego’s industrial tent site. HWAC President Michael Arms reports that his team is helping organizations in 50 other cities create similar programs.

“If shut-ins or the disabled can’t get out and get a meal for themselves, how can they get out and get a meal for their pets? They want to keep their pets and not want to die lonely,” says Arms. “For some, their pet is the only one they can turn to when everyone has turned against them. Their pets are there to support their emotions and keep them warm on cold nights. We need more programs like this that do what we can to keep pets with their persons.”

How You Can Help

Here are details on how you can find out more about these featured programs that aid pets and people in need:

  • Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, CA – Under the innovative leadership of president Michael Arms, this center in San Diego County operates the Animeals and Pets Without Wall programs. Learn more at animalcenter.org.
  • Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals in New York City – For more than a decade, President Jane Hoffman and her staff and volunteer has operated the Helping Pets and People in Crisis program. Learn more at animalallianceNYC.org.
  • Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles – Founder Lori Weise leads this group’s Shelter Intervention Program that helps provide care for the homeless and those with financial struggles keep their pets. Learn more at http://downtowndogrescue.org.
  • People and Pets Together in Minnesota – Kim Carrier founded this program in 2009 to help people keep their pets instead of having to surrender them to a shelter in moments of crisis. Learn more at peopleandpeetstogether.org.