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Q&A: A New York Agency Shares the Benefits of Co-Sheltering Domestic Violence Survivors and Their Pets

A woman holding her dog.

Earlier this year, we talked about innovative efforts to help domestic violence victims and their pets safely leave abusive situations. In New York City, this work is spearheaded by Urban Resource Institute, which launched the city’s first program allowing survivors to co-shelter with their dogs, cats, and other animals in 2013. People and Animals Living Safely, also known as URIPALS, has since expanded to include 27 pet-friendly apartments across Brooklyn and Harlem, with more on the way next year.

To help other agencies interested in starting their own co-shelters, Urban Resource Institute recently published a white paper outlining lessons learned from URIPALS and insights shared by pet-owning survivors. We talked to Jennifer White-Reid, vice president of domestic violence programs, about the importance of gathering data and the many benefits of co-sheltering people and their animals.

NCFY: Why did the agency collect data on URIPALS from its beginning and how has that step informed your work?

White-Reid: When I first started doing the research, I assumed there was a regulation that prohibited shelters from having pets with families. To my surprise, I noticed that the New York state regulations did not have specific language that barred animals in shelter. We knew that we had to collect data to demonstrate a successful model in order to then motivate our colleagues in the field to [open similar programs]. 

From the program’s inception, we collected a significant amount of data and insights from survivors of domestic violence who were seeking our services and from those who were in our shelter programs to get their input on what their needs were, what the challenges were, and how we can have a successful model.

[For example], we discovered the importance of partnering with animal welfare experts in order to develop a program that would be safe for all of our clients, those with or without pets.

[Discover how an Ohio law protects pets of domestic violence survivors].

NCFY: How has URIPALS’ co-sheltering model impacted families that use the program?

White-Reid: We have survivors who talk about, "it wasn’t until my abusive partner was threatening my animal or was about to harm my animal that it hit me that I needed to leave this situation." So, not only are survivors more comfortable and able to talk about their experience with their pet around them…the pet may have been a motivating factor to seeking shelter.

We’ve also noticed [benefits for] some families with kids who do not want to always talk about the abuse. Yet [these same kids] are able to share details about the experience that they had while having their pet in the room with them. Social workers and child therapists can work directly with the family in the apartment where the pet is present. So, while the child is stroking his or her dog or cat, they are able to talk about what they saw and how the domestic violence affected them.

NCFY: How have shelter residents who don’t own pets responded?

White-Reid: We actually saw a lot of families who didn’t have pets enjoy observing the pets in that [co-sheltering] environment. They feel like the pets have transformed how staff and other residents interact with one another. It brings such joy and excitement to them, and they can see how pets offer comfort. And so for those who do not have pets or may have had pets in the past but had to give their dog or cat away, I think what this program allows them to do is to be hopeful about the future.

[Read URI’s white paper abstract and enter your email address for a copy of the complete document.]

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