Qualitative analysis of the sample of shelter workers focused on discussion related to co-sheltering. Two common themes emerged in relationship to inclusion of companion animals in IPV shelters: that shelter workers encounter clients who require companion animal care, and that shelter workers use covert and overt actions to facilitate co-sheltering in human-only IPV shelters. In this section, findings related to each of these two themes are provided, beginning with the experiences of shelter workers who have covertly supported women seeking housing with their companion animals.
5.1 Covert Companion Animal Sheltering
Several of the shelter workers in this sample had stories about nonhumans they helped covertly during their work at the shelter. Some of these women sought out temporary care, and others took matters more into their own hands, quite literally. For example, before current management of the integrated co-shelter in this study transitioned to shared sheltering, companions like fish, reptiles, cats and rabbits were frequently kept in-shelter. During this more secretive stage, companion species were usually cared for by and in the rooms of their “owners”. A worker interviewed at this shelter explains that story spans her career in social services:
My history is, I've always snuck animals into the programs.. .. in my past, I never went to the board.. .. I've had this in my mind my whole career, that this was important.. .. I've always advocated from the inside of the system.
This same employee recounted numerous times where staff cared for clients’ companions in their offices or took them home with them at night and back again to the shelter each morning. She explained:
I ended up, myself, with an animal, because one of our shelter clients had to go into second stage [and she couldn’t take them]. She really wasn't okay to be totally on her own.. .. she had a chihuahua, and a cat named Kit Kat. And when she came to us, she'd been living in an apartment with no furniture. It had a mattress on the floor. That was all she could afford when she left the abuse.. .. she said, "There were days when I laid on that mattress, and had my dog and my cat with me, and I would have killed myself if they weren't there. And I was afraid of them not having anybody to look after them”.
Although her shelter is a co-shelter, when the client left, “moving onto second stage, [she] couldn't take them”. This reflects a separate finding of this study: that other species are excluded in some rental and alternate temporary housing. Many of the interviewees (n = 12) speak in some way about a “housing crisis” or the general lack of affordable housing. Further, 2/3 of my interviewees express concern that clients seeking companion-friendly housing post-shelter will have difficulty finding a home. Even if a first-stage IPV shelter co-sheltered in the short term, the woman may not be able to find co-housing for her next stage in recovery.
The shelter worker continues her narrative about her client’s chihuahua and cat:
She could find someone to take the dog, but no one wanted the cat. I took it home. Kit Kat, beautiful, white and gray, I fell in love with him, and just couldn't, knew that there was no place else to take him.. .. I just took him home. My son already had two cats, and we had two dogs. So, we ended up with three cats. .. and two dogs. And Kit Kat lived with us for many, many, many years.. . and he died probably just a couple of months ago, now. Had him a long time because this was like when we were sneaking animals in.
Remarkably, this shelter worker assumed guardianship of her client’s cat. She also points to past covert sheltering of clients’ companion animals.
Besides the co-shelters already mentioned, two interviewees identify a nonhuman staying in the shelter at time of interview. One, following AODA guidelines that instruct that “service animals” must be permitted in spaces like shelters (Service Ontario e-Laws 2007), mentions a “service dog” staying at her facility for the first time. At another shelter, the companion, a chihuahua, is “not a service dog; she’s just a dog”; in this case, the shelter has allowed the woman to keep her chihuahua in her room, with some access to the rest of the shelter. In this case, the shelter worker identified open inclusion of her client’s dog, but also that this was uncommon. In sum, several women in this study mention occasional stays (n = 5) of clients’ companion animals. These employees made decisions to keep clients’ companion species in the shelter overnight, in spaces like a rarely used bathroom, and a meeting room.
5.2 Overt Co-Sheltering
The current study finds that 3 out of the 10 IPV shelters in the sample—two first-stage and one second-stage—provide co-sheltering of companion species. Two of these spaces allow integrated living, where companion species live alongside their humans in the home, and the third is a purpose-built, on-site kennel space. A fourth co-shelter was mentioned by some interviewees, as being “up north” and having an outdoor kennel for client companion animals; this shelter was not in this interview sample.
Four workers from three facilities represent these co-shelters. Of the two first-stage shelters, one shelter has been taking nonhumans for years and the other, at the time of data collection, was about to open its companion animal section. The former is an integrated co-shelter, where the clients’ companion animals are permitted to move around the shelter with the women, mainly residing in the clients’ bedroom. The latter shelter has a designated nonhuman animal kennel and visiting space away from the main shelters space, but still in the same building.
The first-stage shelter workers in this study who offered co-sheltering were all also involved in its incorporation into an existing shelter or arrived with this policy in place and continuing co-sheltering, while the other identified a need to allow clients’ companion animals and sought funding (capital grants) to construct a separate kennel and visiting space, in the shelter’s basement. This last shelter had recently moved to a newly constructed facility; therefore, the companion animal construction was more about finishing the basement space for their needs, rather than a renovation or new construction.
5.3 Companion Animals in Second-Stage Shelters
The second-stage shelter, a set of townhouses and apartments with security gates and cameras, allows companion animals, in accordance with the municipal housing bylaws. Specifically, the shelter interviewee explains: “we go with the [municipal] by-law. So, if you're allowed three cats, you're allowed three cats. If someone has four cats, unless there's a big complaint, we don't care”. In this second-stage facility, the animal bylaws of the municipality apply; clients may bring their companion animals with them, providing the species and number are within the city’s bylaws.
Several others (n = 4) mentioned their facility being connected to next-stage housing providers, but also the general understanding that co-sheltering is not occurring in these spaces. Specifically, two other shelter workers in this study (working at the same first-stage facility) report that their shelter is connected with a second-stage “sister” shelter, which does not allow companion animals. More study on if and how second stage shelters allow companion animals is needed, particularly since there appears to be different practices across the system, and between shelters with similar stay lengths and facility-types. Next, we turn to the co-shelters in the study sample.
5.4 Co-Shelters in the Study
Delineating the two first-stage co-shelters in this study is the level of companion animal integration. One allows companion species to stay with clients and move about the shelter with them. The other has a purpose-built kennel and visitation space on a separate floor from clients. Both the integrated and kennel shelters openly describe their provision of nonhuman animal-friendly housing (on their websites, in media reports etcetera).
5.4.1 The Integrated Co-shelter
The only integrated co-shelter in my study began by covertly aiding clients with companion animals. A worker interviewed, who is in a managerial and leadership role, has, over time, urged her board of directors and managers from other shelters to push for companion animals in IPV shelters. Her particular shelter is part of regional group of facilities; hers is the only shelter that allows companion animals. Officially, co-sheltering had been in place for four years at time of interview. This shelter worker described how the other area facilities direct clients with companion animals to her shelter, and she and other staff inform incoming clients that their shelter includes companion animals. This regional organizational structure funnels clients with companion animals to her facility, and those who do not wish to live with companion animals into the other shelters in the area, who do not allow companion animals.
The motivation for including companion animals arose out of personal concern and experience, combined with a growing sense of “urgency”:
Particularly, the last 15 years, when it became life or death. It wasn't just talking about enhancing someone's life quality. This is a life-or-death situation. We've got, since January 2017, four women have been murdered by their partners. .. in our region; one was nine months pregnant, and her baby was killed, of course, with her. And one, the one that happened in January. .. the woman, was murdered; and then, he murdered two of her three teenage children.. .. in my past, it's always been talking about enhancing people's life by enabling them to have animals around them. Here, the urgency is even greater.. .. you use the word "urgency" because women, if they don't leave, they are at risk of being murdered.
She reports her work to move officials to permit overt sheltering as persistent, explaining:
Ever since I started here, I've been working on MCSS [Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services].. .. I am so pleased that in the last year, more and more shelters are now coming on board. And it's a bigger voice. It's not just me, saying, "Listen. These women are at risk of being murdered. We have to do something." But now, other people's voices, so I see a real groundswell over the last [while]. […] That like, [other managers] and myself, we go to a provincial ED [executive director] meeting twice a year, where as many of the provincial shelter EDs as possible attend.. .. And the conversation is starting.. .. And I talked to a Ministry rep just even a few weeks ago. And we were talking about the shelter in [our] Region that needs to be replaced, and how collectively, we're supporting that ask of the Ministry for funding, to build a new shelter. And in that new shelter, there needs to be whatever model you want [some kind of co-shelter]. […] And so, that is actually in the ask to the Ministry. And the Ministry is actually hearing these things now, and beginning to say, "Yeah. New shelters going forward [must include space for companion species]”.
To address family continuity as well as safety, this worker recounted how she stirs up support and practical help for including companion animals in her IPV shelter by involving companion animal “advocates” in her community:
I had to link the pet advocates and women's advocates, because I needed people who knew animals, and women who had animals, and people who provided services to those women who had animals, I had to link them all together; to. .. find the vet that would do the wellness checks for us, or to find the groomers who would provide grooming for animals if they came into shelter, and they were a mess; or find what pet stores would give us food. So, to create that link between the pet lovers and the people lovers in the community.. .. And there is nobody more strong and determined than a pet lover, right? So, if you link to them, and get them to support your program. .. our pet advocates will provide us with a leash, or collars, or whatever.. .. [an animal advocacy group] came on board immediately. And the cat rescue.
Here, the shelter worker identifies a community-based approach to co-sheltering, where her facility reaches out to those that help homeless companion animals, such as rescues or foster organizations, to help care for her clients’ companions while in-shelter.
5.4.2 The On-Site, Kennel-Style Co-Shelter
The second first-stage co-shelter in the sample is a newer (2012), purpose-built facility. Their previous location was a “100-year plus old, three-story, [in]accessible” building. The kennel space is purpose-built; like the new shelter, capital funding was sought for its’ design and construction. Located in,
An empty basement. .. with some partitions or some storage areas that were built,. .. it was an empty basement that we could use as a bowling alley. .. there's a huge maintenance room, storage and [then unused space]; this is where we built the. .. animal housing.
The kennel was not built at the same time as the shelter; its’ construction was near completion in 2018 and took about a year and a half from inception to completion. One employee explains why the co-shelter was built:
There's more and more women that are calling and want to flee their abusive partners with children and pet or pet and no children. There's not many options for them in that case. Women can choose to come here without their pets, have a family member take care of their pet or pets. They can come here.
A second employee at this shelter comments on how co-sheltering came to fruition:
It seems a coincidence of events for me.. .. I met a student placement [at the shelter] who is also a vet and broached the idea as well. She said, "We have this unused basement space," that perhaps this was an idea. Then we had a few residents at the time who had had pets. We had the one who had the old dog, and then we had two other residents, one whose son, it was his cat that was left behind, and two bunnies with another family.. .. It just seemed like a coincidence of events that we had all this happening at the same time, that it was decided to maybe move forward with looking at what it would be to implement the animal housing.
[The veterinarian] and our executive director. .. were the spearheads of all of that.. .. the vet, had an idea what would be relatively fast and then what was feasible in-house.
Another employee identifies a project task force: “we had an animal housing committee in-house”. These shelter workers describe the kennel space this way:
When you walk through the door, there's a door that's in the dining room and then you go into the basement area. When you first enter the animal housing area, what's in front of you is like a living room. We set it up like a living room so there's a couch and some Ikea chairs and a television and then a few side areas that have additional seating for the chairs.. .. To me that's the part about where you can be with your pet and hang out on the couch and watch TV and that kind of stuff. Then you walk in,. .. the left would be the small animal housing area, but straight in front of you a little bit to the left is the dog area, where there's four dog runs. Then there's a corridor that will soon be an exit to the outside for our exercise area. Then, to the right is a cat room. And the exit's not going to the parking lot, it's going to a backyard area. We have a huge yard that's already part fenced in. We're going to have an exit to that fenced-in area where the dogs can exercise.
The staff anticipate room in the kennel space for large and small dogs, cats, and other small animals. At time of interview, the co-shelter space had yet to open its doors for clients’ companion animals. Staff explain, “there have been some wrinkles that are still being ironed out”) and “we have some updates to do in terms of our policies and procedures”. The veterinarian “who started the. .. she came to do another quick visit, so there's some things that we need to rejig to make the area more appropriate to accept all different animals”. The co-sheltering aspect is now advertised as open on the IPV facility’s website, explaining:
To address concerns of fear and allergies, this beautiful pet housing area is separate from our common areas in the shelter. The pet housing area includes two pet friendly living rooms with wifi and TVs; separate living areas for dogs, cats and small mammals; a room for food preparation, sanitation and laundry; and an enclosed large outdoor yard for exercise and play. (shelter in-question’s website, 2021)
This description captures some of the concerns uncovered in my sample about incorporating companion animals into IPV shelters, such as allergies or fear of nonhuman animals. These considerations and others have been identified in the literature (Gray et al. 2019; Stevenson et al. 2018), as well as in my sample; they warrant discussion on their own, elsewhere.
These findings of the actions taken by shelter workers to offer safe housing for clients’ companion animals are next viewed in context with relevant literature and sociological theories. Specifically, they are viewed through a feminist and social movement frame, where covert and overt actions have been and continue to be taken to address the need for companion animal care and family cohesion in circumstances of intimate partner violence.