Trying to fund a homeless shelter? Open your door to pets

Stephanie Sena has run a homeless shelter out of the basement of Arch Street United Methodist Church for six years. And each year she reaches out for donations and support in order to stay open from November through April.

“I’ve been yelling from the rooftops, ‘Our neighbors are dying on the streets,’ and money is slowly trickling in,” Sena said.

This summer, she started pitching an idea to open a new shelter that would allow people to bring in their pets.

That’s taught her something about what people value:

“People are coming out of the woodwork with everything from wanting to offer me free grooming, vet care, crates,” she said. “People want to come walk the dogs, people want to come pet the dogs, people want to donate dog blankets.

“For the [homeless] people, the response has been ‘eh,’ but for the dogs, it turns out these are going to be the best-cared-for dogs in Philadelphia.”

Sena, 38, a history professor at Villanova University, founded the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, a network of eight universities whose students staff the shelter on Arch Street. Over the years she has had to turn away dozens of people with pets, since animals aren’t allowed in the church. On the freezing cold or swelteringly hot days, she worries where they go.

About 130 people who are homeless in Philadelphia will die on the streets each year, Sena said. She’s also heard horror stories of people checking their animals into pet shelters where they are later euthanized.

To get the shelter on its feet, Sena is partnering with Michele Schaffer-Stevens, who has for several years donated water bowls and roll-up dog beds to the homeless, and connected them to free spaying and neutering services. Schaffer-Stevens, of Haddonfield, said she’d provide those and other resources to the shelter and act as a conduit between Sena and other animal care providers.

Camera icon MICHELE FRENTROP / For the Philadelphia Inquirer
Ella Sharon (left), Stephanie Sena, Michele Schaffer-Stevens and D’Nyh Philmore (right) play with rescue dog Aladdin in a classroom at Meredith Elementary School. Sena is partnering with Meredith to involve students in the pet-friendly shelter she is opening with Schaffer-Stevens.

Schaffer-Stevens’ rescue pit bull, Aladdin, is something of a big deal — he’s a public figure on Facebook with 20,000 followers, the American Humane Association’s therapy dog of the year, an ambassador dog for State Farm Insurance, sponsored by Tito’s Vodka. Schaffer-Stevens says she’ll parlay those partnerships into support for the shelter.

If all goes well, the two may be able to purchase a building that sleeps about 60 people and their pets (in crates) in time to open in December. Sena has about $30,000 in hand and estimates she’ll need $75,000 more. A GoFundMe page has brought in $6,000 and a few potential investors are lined up.

“Stephanie is filling a huge unmet need,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME. Scullion said it doesn’t much matter to her if it took the plight of some puppies to get people more involved in the issue of homelessness.

“Whether people have a heart for young people experiencing homelessness, or senior citizens or people with animals, it’s all good,” she said. “If it’s an access point to get involved in an issue, we’re grateful.”

Nationally, it is estimated that about 10 percent of homeless people care for animals. Genevieve Frederick founded Pets of the Homeless to try to keep pets and owners together. Her Nevada-based organization provides food, emergency medical attention, and crates to shelters willing to house animals nationwide.

Frederick said she didn’t know of any pet-friendly shelters in the Philadelphia area.

“People identify with animals,” Frederick said. “They don’t think about themselves becoming homeless next week, but when they see a homeless person with an animal, they can relate right away, because they have a pet at home.”

Research shows people are more apt to give money to people on the street if they have animals, said Leslie Irvine, a sociologist who wrote My Dog Always Eats First, a book of interviews with 75 homeless people living with animals in five American cities. In Irvine’s interviews with homeless pet owners, she said people relied on the animals for companionship, a connection to home, a distraction from drugs or alcohol, and, in the most extreme cases, a reason to live.

“For some people it is their oxygen, their suicide barrier, their only source of affection,” Irvine said.

Her research also showed how much people value animals — often over humans. She conducted a study asking people to score the vulnerability of victims in four scenarios. Respondents ranked a human baby first, a puppy second, an adult dog third, and an adult human fourth.

“They probably recognize the person as vulnerable, too, but the animal is doubly vulnerable because the standard narrative is, the dog didn’t choose to be homeless, which of course the human didn’t either,” Irvine said.

John Toth didn’t choose to be living on the streets of Philadelphia. A probation violation landed him 90 days in jail, causing him to lose his apartment and his job, he said. He’s been living on the streets for about two years. Four months ago he spotted a small orange calico kitten in an alley in North Philadelphia.

Camera icon Julia Terruso/Staff Writer
John Toth holds his kitten, KitKat, on South Broad Street.

The little cat was ratty, dirty, and shaking.

“I’m not even a cat person, I’m not an animal person, period,” Toth said. “I don’t know why I took him, I just took him. Then, once I had him, I guess I got a little attached.”

Toth, 28, said people have been more generous since he’s gotten the kitten, though most times their generosity is directed toward the animal. Two minutes into his conversation with a reporter, a woman walked up and handed him a bag of cat kibble and quickly walked away.

Others get mad. “People say, ‘How do you have money to buy a cat? He shouldn’t be living on the street.’ They don’t realize I found him on the street. I take care of him,” Toth said.

For Toth, who carries the cat around in a zip-up cooler when he’s on the move, KitKat “gives me some responsibility over something, some routine.”