Foster program gives pets temporary homes while owners are homeless
Like many pet owners experiencing homelessness, Carolyn Rodriguez and Graciela Meraz faced a heartbreaking decision.
“I got her when she was a baby,” Meraz said about their cat, Lam Lam. “Unfortunately, we became homeless in July. I just couldn’t leave her.”
Many homeless people have faced giving up their beloved pet in exchange for a hotel room or shelter bed. Most shelters in San Diego County have begun allowing pets after recognizing the restriction was keeping some people on the street, but no-pets policies still exist.
For those situations, people facing homelessness or other unstable conditions can find a temporary home for their pets in a relatively new foster program through the San Diego Humane Society.
The program helped Rodriguez and Meraz, who lost their jobs in March 2021 when their employer’s company shut down. Things got worse when Meraz was unable to receive unemployment benefits for five months because her identity had been stolen.
“Everything just started going downhill really bad,” she said. “We had two cars and ended up with one. I started doing delivery jobs. That helped, but it wasn’t enough.”
By May of 2022, they began seeking help and found assistance through the county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Fund, which provided enough rent to allow them to remain in Chula Vista for a few months. That funding ran out July 31, and the couple scrambled until they found housing through Brother Benno’s in Oceanside, which provided a hotel voucher at the other end of the county.
Their housing situation was temporarily secure, but with a catch. The hotel did not allow pets.
“It affected me enormously,” Meraz said, recalling how she and her wife immediately began searching for help. They paid for a pet-sitter the first three days, but with money low Meraz then began sleeping in her car to be with Lam Lam.
“I didn’t want to give her up,” she said.
The couple turned to the Internet for a solution and discovered the safety net foster program.
Unlike other programs where a person permanently turns over their pet, the safety net foster program allows someone in crisis to temporarily surrender their pet to the Humane Society, which finds a temporary home for the animal in hopes of later reuniting it with its owner.
Lauren Rogers, community initiatives specialist with the Humane Society, said the safety net foster program began in April 2021 as part of a pilot program launched by Arizona State University and Virginia Tech University and the national animal welfare organization Maddie’s Fund.
The San Diego Humane Society was one of a few shelters participating in the pilot, which Rogers said went well. When the pilot ended in the fall of 2021, it continued in San Diego.
The safety net foster program helps pet owners going through a period of instability or crisis, such as housing loss, escaping domestic violence, entering a drug or alcohol treatment program or requiring extended hospitalization.
About 200 pets have gone through the program, with dogs accounting for about 50 percent of the animals and cats 45 percent, she said. Pets have also included a pigeon, fish, rabbits and a couple of hamsters, Rogers said.
The reunification rate between owners and pets is 83 percent, while just 12 percent of the pets have been relinquished and 5 percent abandoned.
“We try to provide support for a maximum of 90 days, but we’ll extend if there’s a situation where an owner’s situation will be resolved soon,” Rogers said, adding that 63 days is the average stay in the program.
About 67 percent of the fosters are due to temporary homelessness, and most leave the program because they have found housing.
“We see a variety of different circumstances of people falling into homelessness,” Rogers said. “Typically, someone is in-between housing. The rent increased and they had to leave, and they’re most often couch-surfing or staying in their vehicle or in a shelter. Or maybe the individual is working during the day and they don’t have a place for their pet to go.”
Foster parents and the pets’ owners never meet one another, but every week, owners receive an update and photos of their pets to know they are all right.
Meraz said turning Lam Lam over to a foster family was traumatic, but the weekly updates were reassuring.
“I saw pictures, and she was doing great,” she said. “That would make me feel better.”
Besides the benefits to pet owners, foster pet owners also enjoy having a temporary pet and knowing they are helping someone through a personal crisis.
Jenney Lu of National City said she was looking for a way to volunteer and saw the safety net foster program as a perfect fit.
“I just like to have a dog to cuddle with at home without the responsibility of permanent doghood,” she said.
Although she knows she is giving only a temporary home to the dogs, Lu said she still finds herself getting attached to them. It helps to know that she is helping someone through a difficult time who will appreciate the care she is giving to their pet.
Lu has fostered four dogs, including Dior, a pitbull terrier who was with her for three months.
The Humane Society has posted a touching video of Dior being reunited with her owner, which can be seen online at https://bit.ly/3LJs1dB.
Meraz and Rodriguez have a new home in Escondido they found with help from Interfaith Community Services. They were reunited with Lam Lam in November, and Meraz said she was nervous their cat wouldn’t remember them.
“We were waiting in the lobby,” Meraz recalled about the reunion at the Humane Society. “I was so anxious, scared.”
Rodriguez cried when Lam Lam came out, and Meraz sang a song she hoped her pet would find familiar and comforting. Lam Lam was a bit overwhelmed.
“I’d sing to her and she’d just look at us,” she said. “It took three days, and then she’d get closer. But then one day, she got on top of the bed and sat right next to me. I thought, ‘You’re back.’”
To learn how to participate in the foster program, visit sdhumane.org/foster.