On hard times: Wichita social service providers work to keep pets and owners together

 Dr. Christen Skaer and Christen Sampamurthy

Dr. Christen Skaer and Christen Sampamurthy

By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Aaron Patton

Becoming homeless and unemployed has been a tough ordeal for Mikki Ramirez and her family.
    “Going through this is so hard and the last thing we wanted to have to tell our kids was that we’re losing their pets as well,” said Ramirez during a recent phone interview from one of Wichita’s shelters. 
    Fortunately for Ramirez, there’s a growing awareness among social service providers in Wichita about the special relationships that often exist between pets and their owners. While the Ramirezes weren’t able to keep their family’s 7-year-old dog, Ewok, and 2-year-old cat, Shiva, in the shelter, the provider found and is paying for boarding at a local animal clinic.
    In the coming months, Inter-Faith Inn, run by Inter-Faith Ministries (IFM), will become the first Wichita homeless shelter – and likely one of the few in the nation – to accept pets, according to program director Christen Sampamurthy. The Inn is a 24-hour, 53-bed shelter serving homeless individuals and families, Sampamurthy said.
    “It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” said Dr. Christen Skaer, who runs Skaer Veterinary Clinic and is an IFM board member. “We need to provide as many chances for homeless to achieve success and this is one step. You don’t provide stability by taking pets away from them. You don’t have to have a home to love animals.”
    Skaer is involved in several state and local pet advocacy efforts, including Project Care, a program started by the South Central Animal Response Team in 2013 to provide free basic veterinarian services to pets of the homeless population. Through her work with Project Care, Skaer has seen firsthand how meaningful pets are to the homeless, providing companionship, unconditional love and even mental health benefits – such as giving the person a reason to go on. 
    Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, all shelters are required to allow service animals to stay with their owners. Some homeless and domestic violence shelters in Wichita, including those run by Catholic Charities of Wichita and the Wichita Family Crisis Center, also allow animals that have been declared a comfort or emotional support animal by a care provider. 
    In recent years, many local shelters, such as the Salvation Army shelter where the Ramirezes are staying, have started working with their clients who have pets to find boarding or foster homes for the animals and cover related costs as part of their services.
    “Those pets are important to our clients so they are important to us,” said Heather Welch, director of communications and marketing with Catholic Charities of Wichita.
    Many of the organizations that work with the homeless are aware that pet owners who live on the street are often reluctant to tap into the services because of their pet ownership. The pets are either not welcome or the homeless fear the pets will be taken away, according to a 2015 master’s thesis research project by Teresa Click, a local legal advocate for homeless. It’s estimated that about 5 to 10 percent of Wichita’s homeless population has pets.
    “There’s a stigma of ‘I’m homeless and how can I take care of a pet if I can’t take care of myself,’” said Zabrina Romero of Catholic Charities, so some homeless just stay away or find it too difficult to get help while being a pet owner. 
    As the nonprofit’s homeless veterans case manager, Romero works with a number of agencies to rehome veterans. She’s also a member of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Continuum of Care, a collaborative effort headed by the United Way of the Plains to address homelessness. Recently the group’s homeless pet coalition has been specifically looking at how to more effectively address the needs of homeless pet owners.
    The new pet-friendly policy at the Inter-Faith Inn is seen a step in that direction. Three dog runs are being completed behind the shelter and a former child’s playhouse is being converted into a cat condo to house the pets that will accompany their owners. The pets will have to undergo an intake assessment by a veterinarian to ensure vaccinations are up to date and that they can safely be around other pets and people. 
    “We’ve already had eight vets step up to do that,” noted Skaer. 
    The pets will be treated like clients in that food, litter, dog waste bags and other essentials will be provided during their stay at the shelter. When the owners need to leave the shelter for appointments, staff will need to be notified and the pets will need to be secured, said Sampamurthy.