Honey, Sassy, Spruce, Buddyrow, and Butter Bean — along with the people who love them — might still be experiencing homelessness were it not for the Sacred Heart Recovery Residence.
“We had chances to get into shelters, but not with the dogs,” said Mark Mozeke, who was living with Spruce, several other canines, and two extended family members in “a man-made tarp tent” at a Bensalem cemetery before Sacred Heart took them all in six months ago.
“If we had said to heck with the dogs,” added Mozeke, 51, “we probably would have found a place right off the bat.”
Operated by Philadelphia’s Project HOME, the facility in the city’s Hunting Park neighborhood opened in 2019 and provides long-term supportive housing and other services for up to 54 adults, including couples. Sacred Heart clients generally have histories of substance use disorder or other mental health challenges, and include people who have preferred to live on the street rather than give up their companion animals.
“I found Butter Bean at 59th and Race when she was only a puppy with a broken leg,” said Samantha House, as the lively red-nose pit bull gazed up at her adoringly. “I was determined to keep her.”
Pets are a deal-breaker for many landlords, family members, and human service agencies willing to help those experiencing homelessness. But for people who have lost everything and everyone except the dog, cat, or other pet that’s been at their side through it all, being forced to give up a beloved animal can discourage people living in addiction from attempting or sustaining recovery.
“I would be really depressed without Butter Bean,” said House, 50, a former security guard from West Philly who became homeless two years ago. “She’s bright and bubbly. She’s funny.”
Project HOME is one of the key providers of services for people experiencing homelessness in the city; it operates 22 buildings that collectively house upward of 900 men, women, and children. The decision to accommodate pets was a natural outgrowth of the core mission, said Carol Thomas, director of strategic initiatives.
“We were the first to do the pets in 2017, when I was the director of homeless outreach,” said Thomas, noting that workers frequently encountered people unwilling to part with pets in order to come inside, even during extreme temperatures.
“We pushed the envelope because we needed to,” she said. “The first winter respite with pets was in the basement of our main building at 1515 Fairmount (Avenue). We had dogs, cats, birds, ferrets … all types of pets.”
One day, Project HOME founder and executive director Sister Mary Scullion “walked in,” said Thomas. “It was like a little zoo, a menagerie, and Sister Mary was like, ‘Wow.’”
In a statement, Scullion said the Code Blue that winter “left behind” a number of people with animals who did not want to go inside without them. “I’m so grateful to work with colleagues who were able to meet their needs in a safe and dignified way so they could come in,” she said, adding that “1515 Fairmount Avenue served that purpose temporarily and subsequently we were able to do something in a more permanent way at Sacred Heart.”
In order to formalize the program, Project HOME had to meet regulatory and insurance requirements and allocate funding. Veterinary care and food for the animals currently costs about $10,000 a year, and Project HOME is seeking donor support.
“If the only barrier to getting help is that the person has a pet, and the pet is family to them, and the person gets emotional support from that relationship, why should [providers] be a barrier to the person getting on the path to healing and housing? We wouldn’t tell people that they can’t come in with their kids,” Thomas said.
So far, Sacred Heart has provided housing for about 10 animals, eight of which (six dogs and two cats) currently reside there. Peg’s Place, a new Project HOME facility in North Philadelphia that will have its grand opening this month, also will accept people with companion animals, said media officer Edel Howlin.
Project HOME has long accommodated people with seeing-eye dogs, as well as other service animals, and the new program “is about pets in particular but also about removing barriers that might prevent folks from coming in and starting their recovery journey” — including the cost of feeding their animals, she said.
“Hypothetically, we could accommodate 54 people with pets at Sacred Heart and another 40 people with pets at Peg’s Place,” said Howlin.
“Going forward, we will allow companion animals in our buildings in general, because we are always trying to remove barriers, whatever they may be, that prevent people from getting access to housing, opportunities for employment, medical care, and education.”
As senior program manager at Sacred Heart, Nicole Wakeman sees firsthand how the pet program helps people transition out of homelessness.
“Samantha had lived outside on a porch with Butter Bean for a little over a year. Her dog is her support, her companion, her buddy. So she chose to stay outside on the porch during a Code Blue,” said Wakeman.
Said House, “I wasn’t going to leave her outside in the cold.”
Wakeman described another recent case that involved a woman who got stuck in Philadelphia with her dog after running out of money on the way to visit family. The woman told an outreach worker that she was on the street out of fear of being forced to give up the animal; she stayed at Sacred Heart for a week until she was able to get a bus ticket to her destination.
Similarly, Mozeke, his fiance, Betty Pugh, Betty’s adult son James, and their dogs, Spruce, Buddyrow, Bootsie, and Sassy arrived in Philly about eight months ago from the Midwest, where they’d lost their home in a fire. They presumed a former landlord here would accommodate them, but their dogs turned out to be a no-go.
The family stayed in motels for a while but soon ran out of money. They found shelter doors were closed to them because of their pets and so they set up camp in a makeshift tent in Roosevelt Cemetery. By the time they were taken in at Sacred Heart, Bootsie had died.
”I would not give up my animals, because they give me comfort to my heart,” said Betty, 71. “They’re always there. Sacred Heart has been wonderful to us.”
Like Samantha House, Sacred Heart resident Dan Doyle is set to move to an apartment in Peg’s Place. And Honey, the nearly blind, nearly 12-year-old Italian greyhound that belonged to his mother, will be going with him.
“She’s my family,” said Doyle, 67.
“I was living on the streets. My mother left me the house in Port Richmond area, but I was heavy on alcohol and cocaine,” he said, and he lost the home. “I had recovery in the 1990s, and now I’ve got 14 months clean, and I got it here at Sacred Heart.”
Now that he has a future, “I’d like to get a part-time job,” said Doyle, who once worked in human services himself. “I couldn’t be more grateful to Sacred Heart for what they’ve done for me. With the dog, my own family wouldn’t take me in.”
Even though Honey never growls and barely barks.
“When she barks,” Doyle said, “she only barks at me.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.