People & Places

‘All I have left’: The struggle of seeking shelter with pets

Woman on bench holding two dogs
Jean, who VTDigger agreed to identify by her middle name only, sits on a bench outside of Best Buy in Williston on July 22 with her dogs Gypsy and Boots in her lap. "These are my babies," she said, as they posed for their collective portrait. Jean has lived out of her car and with friends as she's been unable to take her pets to a homeless shelter. Photo by Ella Ruehsen/VTDigger

Updated at 6:34 p.m.

This July’s heat wave, while unpleasant for most, has had serious implications for some. One woman experiencing homelessness has seldom had anywhere to go besides her black car, which she’s been parking on the blacktop asphalt of Winooski’s strip mall lots. 

Jean, 53, has been living out of her vehicle for three or four months — she isn’t exactly sure how long it has been — with her two pups: Gypsy, a black pug chihuahua mix, and Boots, a yellow chihuahua. The three of them recently spent a few days at an acquaintance’s residence, where Jean was able to shower, but she said she left because her host used drugs and had pressured her to partake. 

As a result, Jean and her dogs are once again on the streets without a roof over their heads. 

“It's been really bad because with this car being black, it's hard to keep it cool for them,” she said. “And I'll be honest, I try like hell to keep it cool.” 

VTDigger agreed to identify Jean by only her middle name for the sake of her privacy. 

So far, Jean has been unsuccessful in her efforts to seek temporary lodging at a shelter, as the vast majority of homeless shelters do not accept people with pets, unless the pets are certified service animals. Still, Jean’s dogs are non-negotiable. 

“Honestly, the struggle has been so, so much,” she said. “They’re all I have left.” 

When pets are the priority    

Jean’s only stream of income is from Social Security, which she said doesn’t go far. Still, with what little she can, Jean always tries to give her dogs the world. 

“I let my babies eat before I even eat,” she said, referring to her dogs. “They eat before me. What's left, I'll eat with them. But other than that, these dogs come first.” 

In the heat, Jean tries to park in shadier areas and run air conditioning whenever she can afford to fill her tank with gas, for the sake of Gypsy and Boots. She also tries to always keep water in the car for them. In this heat, she’s grateful every time it rains, she said. 

“I just soaked them down with the jug that I got them,” she said. “We don't have much.” 

Jean attributes her love for animals to her upbringing on a farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she lived until age 16 when her single mother died of cancer. They had “every type of pet you can think of” back then. Now, she has Gypsy and Boots. 

“I’ve had to fight for them two,” she said. “I put them first.” 

Gypsy is about 3 years old. She was born on Valentine’s Day. She was the runt and she had a cleft lip so her first owner didn’t want her. Jean has had Boots for four or five years. Boots also has a problem with his mouth, but in his case, it’s because he was abused by a previous owner. 

Nearly a year ago, Jean managed to get Gypsy and Boots back from her ex, who she said wasn’t properly feeding them. But even now, Jean struggles with the idea of losing the dogs. Someone even tried to walk up and snatch one of them recently, she said. 

“Gypsy, I really love that little booger. She's got the attitude to where ‘you're my mama, nobody else's, they need to leave you be,’” she said. “Boots, I like his attitude because he's very picky. He's very protective, very protective.” 

Obstacles to access of temporary housing 

Several months ago, Jean had been doing landscaping and yard work in exchange for housing at a woman’s private residence for some time, but those arrangements didn’t last. 

Among other health issues, Jean suffers from spine problems as a result of a car wreck in the mid-1990s, she said, which means she feels long-term traditional employment is not possible. Still, her dogs help her get by in spite of her ailments, which include deafness in one ear. 

“With my panic attacks, they’re right there. Oh yeah, with my bronchitis acting up, they’re right there. Yeah, with me being deaf, they’re right there. If somebody knocks on the door and I don't hear them, they do,” Jean said. “And then I'm being judged for it.” 

Jean said her dogs function as service animals to her, though their lack of certification as such means they don’t qualify for admittance to a shelter alongside her. Still, the dogs are very smart and helpful, she said. They always know when something is wrong and how to calm her down. 

“I haven't got the paperwork on them,” Jean said. “Which I wished I could.” 

Jean trusts Boots as to when she can feel at ease in any particular location they’re parked at, she said. She often sleeps with a knife in her lap for her safety. He always barks to tip her off if their surroundings don’t feel safe.

Jean feels safer knowing Boots is watching over her, and she appreciates the company Boots and Gypsy bring to her life. 

“If you really listen to them, you will hear them talking,” she said.  

Considering the status quo 

Paul Dragon, the executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, believes shelters should move away from the standard practice of only allowing service animals, and find safe ways of accommodating people’s pets. 

“It's really important that people are able to stay connected to their animals and that the animals are safe and that the people are safe,” Dragon said. “I'm not just talking about therapy dogs. I'm talking about animals that serve as our friends and family. I think that's important.” 

Dragon often hears that shelters worry about pets not being well behaved, or that they may cause a mess or an allergic reaction. Although these hypotheticals may sometimes be true, Dragon believes there are also a lot of human beings who might have some of those very same behaviors and cause some of those very problems. 

There are a few resources for folks in Jean’s position. There is a community resource center in Burlington that allows pets inside to cool off in the summer or warm up during winters, Dragon said, as well as a community outreach team that brings out food to people and their pets. 

If somebody experiencing homelessness is facing an acute crisis and needs someone else to temporarily care for their pets, the Good Neighbor program at the Humane Society of Chittenden County will do that free of charge, though that care is limited to a timeline of two weeks. Sometimes, people with pets in this program choose to relinquish them at the end of the two weeks. 

Humane Societies in Vermont have recently seen upticks in the quantity of people giving up their pets out of necessity, as a result of the impacts of inflation and experiencing long-term housing issues, according to reporting from WCAX. 

As far as temporary housing options in which both people and their pets can go to seek shelter, the options are scarce. 

Dragon is not aware of any currently-in-use temporary housing sites that allow pets to join alongside their owners, though there may be a few on the hotel temporary housing program. 

There was one area hotel operating with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds as a part of the voucher program assisting those experiencing homelessness with temporary housing. At one point it was the largest shelter in Vermont, and it allowed pets, Dragon said — but it’s no longer operating as a shelter. 

“I would just hope that shelter providers and service providers really understand the need to care for companions and pets as well as people,” Dragon said. “And we do all we can as service providers to make sure everyone without a home, including homeless pets, are cared for.” 

Getting by from day to day 

At the time of the most recent single-day annual tally, which took place in January, about 700 people were recorded experiencing homelessness in Chittenden County, where Jean has predominantly been parking, according to the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. The count is not inclusive of those at risk of homelessness or couch surfing during the time of the count. 

The numbers of people found experiencing homelessness more than doubled both countywide and statewide between 2020 and 2021. 

According to a report issued this week by Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer, homelessness continued to rise statewide from 2021 to 2022, in spite of drastic increases in spending to mitigate homelessness following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Jean said she finds it embarrassing not having any way of taking a shower, and that she often has to put a sign on her vehicle to get enough money to pay for food and to turn the air conditioning in her car so she can keep her dogs cool. 

“I just wish that I could get into a motorhome or something and get out of this heat,” she said. 

At one point last week, prior to her brief stint couch surfing, Jean briefly got permission to stay on the grounds behind a church, and moved whenever they had a service, but most recently, she’s had only her car and her pets. 

She said it’s also been tough not having any place to cook. Sometimes, she said, she would find ways to cook outdoors on grills. 

When it comes to finding food in the first place, “you have to hustle for it,” she said. Jean often asks store managers if they have anything they can give. 

“If they can, they can, if they can't, they can't, or you go to a food shelter and get what you need,” she said. “Honestly, it's embarrassing as hell because you know you can do better but if you can't, and you're homeless, you've got to do what you have to do to eat.” 

Jean said she’s always cognizant of how tight the money is, relying only on Social Security. She hasn’t eaten much this summer and she often finds herself bored and overheated. 

“It’s not as easy as people think it is,” Jean said. “I try to tell people: Don't take stuff for granted. Don't. Because, what if you don't have it? What if you get kicked out of your place? Or don't have a vehicle? Where are you gonna go, what are you gonna do?” 

A little while back, Jean was staying in Burlington, but she’s avoided that area and stuck around Williston and Essex ever since she heard gunfire nearby her vehicle. 

“It's hard everywhere,” Jean said. “I mean, one minute you're in Burlington, getting your car worked on or fixed. The next minute you're hearing gunshots coming from behind your car, not knowing if you're hit.” 

When she’s living out of her car, Jean always asks store managers if they have a problem with her sitting in their lots before parking her car in any given area. Sometimes she is asked to leave, but most of the time the store managers have been accommodating. 

“It is not easy to try to find a bed, find a shower, find somewhere where you could go with a water source,” she said. “You can't go nowhere unless you take your pets with you. Which I do, because I don't want them stolen, so I take them.” 

Dragon said the majority of people his office sees and serves are without pets, but he recognizes how deeply attached some folks and their pets are. 

“There is a small minority that have their animals with them and love them dearly, dearly as family members,” he said. “All of us know through research, and maybe through our own lives, that animals, companions really, can help us with our emotionalizing, particularly if you have trauma, which many people experiencing homelessness do.” 

Jean said she hates doing what she’s been doing to get by, but loves her two little dogs and carries with her a generous attitude, in spite of the stigmas and discrimination she faces daily. 

“People put me down,” she said. “I give more to my little dogs than I do anything else. And I do. But yet, if someone walked up and asked me for help with food, I would take what I had in my pocket and give it to them, and I’d do without.”

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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