Los Angeles Renters Fight Back to Keep Their Pets — and Homes

The El Rancho Mobile Home Park in Compton, California, a cluster of aging trailers parked on a concrete slab was, nevertheless, an inviting place for low-wage tenants, thanks to its policies and prices. Even blue-collar workers could make the rent; kids and dogs were both welcome. Some tenants — Spanish-speaking house cleaners and baby-sitters, the elderly and disabled — had been there for decades. Although leases, written in English, specified dogs had to be under 25 pounds, the rule had never been enforced. Many households had bigger dogs — several, in fact.

So the notice that management tacked to their doors last May sparked panic: Residents had seven days to comply with the original rule or leave. The “choice” was no choice at all — turn in beloved animals at the local shelter or move to…well, nowhere. In a county with the nation’s largest gap between rent prices and average wages, the alternative to a $750 a month apartment is essentially the street.

But in early June three residents went to the monthly free animal care clinic run by Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR) in Compton. All had previously had their pets sterilized there, and they’d gotten word that this time there’d be a lawyer present. Longtime housing rights attorney Dianne Prado, sitting not far from the spaymobile, heard their stories and felt a familiar anger rising in her.

If the landlord accepted your pets for years, he can’t just say no now, she told them, adding, “This isn’t gonna happen.” Prado made a single phone call to the trailer park’s management company lawyer, Max Eggleston, and with the magic words, “I’m the attorney who represents…” the problem seemed to disappear. (Eggleston says that there was no change in policy, and that tenants have always been expected to “adhere to their leases.”) One of the tenants who’d already surrendered his dog to a county shelter reclaimed it, then phoned Prado crying, with his pet in his arms.

“A whole group of people about to be traumatized, 20-plus pets that were going to be added to the shelter population — nope,” Prado said. “Just like that, done.”

Los Angeles-area courts hear some 54,000 eviction cases each year, and no one knows how many more move “voluntarily” at the first landlord threat. Pet issues — sometimes legitimate, often not — are high on the list of why: Evoking a previously unenforced “no pet” clause is one good way for property owners to empty a building before it’s put up for sale, or to push out low-rent tenants in a gentrifying area.

Pets also hamper tenants from finding any housing at all — about half of Los Angeles’ rental units and most homeless shelters don’t allow them. The federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for tenants with physical or mental disabilities, a requirement that includes accepting certified service or emotional support animals. But tenants can’t insist on rights if they don’t know they have them.

Enter Prado’s public interest law firm, the Housing Equality and Advocacy Resource Team (HEART), and the legal services offered by the Inner City Law Center via DDR’s Pet Resource Center on Skid Row. These parallel efforts may represent the first time no-cost attorneys have focused solely on pets as the driver of housing problems. They also mark a powerful merger of movements: the struggles for social justice and for animal welfare.

The South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, located on 60th St. near Western Ave., echoes with the crash of bottles from a next-door recycling plant and the frenzied barking of 300-plus dogs. On a recent fall day, Prado was conducting business on a folding table near the shelter’s intake office, armed with a laptop, phone and legal forms. Her first client, referred by an animal rescue group, was a Latina in her 40s who’d brought her teenage daughter and a thick file folder of papers. Their landlord had sent a “Notice to Quit” the $642-a-month apartment below Baldwin Hills that the mother had rented for decades because of a terrier named Cookie.

“But we’ve had the dog for five years!” she told Prado, adding that it had been classified an emotional support animal for her daughter, who was being treated for anxiety and depression. The girl said nothing but looked down at her hands.

No te preocupes,” Prado ordered, then in a rush of alternately reassuring and indignant Spanish — when injustice riles her, she talks like a tape recorder set on fast — explained that she would take the case, “todo es gratis.” In the time it took her client to sign a representation agreement, she had left a message for the landlord’s lawyer, pulled out a flyer with immigration information, and pointed toward the shelter’s main office, where the terrier’s license could be renewed. (The dog was already spayed; every family getting Prado’s representation has or will have a sterilized pet.)

“Next!”

Two women, currently employed, appeared with a dog and a blizzard of contradictory notices about having to leave their Boyle Heights rental. Prado got to work.

It’s a more crowded and grimmer scene at the weekly Pet Resource clinic. Dozens of pet owners, over half of them homeless, arrive on foot at a dead-end street off Seventh St. and Central Ave., some bearing animals in shopping carts and bicycle baskets. Los Angeles Animal Services workers offer vouchers for free spay and neuter surgery; DDR volunteers provide bags of food and other supplies. Meanwhile, an attorney and paralegal work the lines in a low-key way. “How’re you doing? Good to see you! Any other problems you need help with today?”

Mental health and addiction issues are the norm here, and “sometimes it takes a few meetings to build trust,” says James Gilliam, the Inner City Law Center’s directing attorney. That was how he encountered a 65-year-old Latina whose love of her dog had consigned her to the sidewalk. “She’d been matched for housing in a low-income building,” Gilliam continues, “and even though she had a letter saying that she was disabled, and her dog was a support animal, she was not being allowed to move in with it. She couldn’t find a shelter that took animals either. I wrote a ‘reasonable accommodation’ letter and gave her five copies. Two weeks later, because of that legal letter, she was in the approved low-income housing.”

HEART and the Pet Resource Center legal clinic are separate entities that grew from a shared root: the vision of Lori Weise. Weise founded DDR in the late 1990s and has spent decades helping pet owners on Skid Row and in South L.A. Her work has been shaped by the understanding that a great deal of animal suffering is directly connected to the economic suffering of humans. Like most rescues, DDR saves and rehomes shelter dogs, but “for me,” says Weise, “it’s always been about the people.”

Since 2013, the organization’s “intervention program” at the South L.A. Animal Shelter has helped keep more than 7,000 animals out of the always-crowded facility by giving financial and other tangible assistance to struggling pet owners who are considering a pet surrender. The program, offering everything from money for reclamation fees to vouchers for vet care and even construction of dog-proof fences in open yards, has been widely imitated; programs based on Weise’s model exist at several Los Angeles-area shelters, as well as in other cities and states.

Over time, intervention program counselors have repeatedly seen families forced to choose between their housing and their animals’. The problem is widespread. A survey by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found the top two reasons for surrender of both dogs and cats were “moving” and “landlord not allowing pets.” In a 2015 motion, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz noted that “since 2011, at least 22.6 percent of relinquished dogs and 18.6 percent of relinquished cats” had been turned over to city shelters because of tenancy restrictions.

The question was what to do. But also in 2015, both Weise and Prado, then a supervising staff attorney at Inner City Law, were speakers at a downtown forum on poverty and pets. Prado’s passionate commentary about how low-income tenants threatened with eviction inevitably lost because they had no legal representation was “a lightbulb moment for me,” Weise says. “I was listening to someone outside animal rescue who understood the problem.”

Prado, who’s got a 9-ish-year-old pitbull named Falcor that she rescued from the side of a freeway, felt the same. “Lori brings services together that no one else in the animal advocacy world would have thought were joined,” she says. The Pet Resource Center began the following year as a collaboration between Weise, the L.A. Animal Services Department and Inner City Law. In 2018, Prado left to start her own practice; her current clients come through shelter intervention counselors, rescue groups and community pet care clinics.

One strength of this strategy, its ability to organize without anyone noticing, comes from meeting clients “where they are,” as Weise would put it, and in settings that have nothing to do with their legal issues.

“When someone is facing or experiencing homelessness, people try to home in on one issue,” says Tai Glenn, chief counsel and director of legal services at Inner City. “But part of what we’re seeing is that there has to be a more holistic approach. This is a place where that can happen.”

Prado notes that many of her clients are not only dealing with eviction threats but problems like cockroach and rat infestations. “Without the pets, there are many people I’ve helped who’d never even have spoken to me,” she says. “No one wants to talk to a lawyer!”

Another strength is the strategy’s logic. Humans evicted because of animals face predictable financial and emotional consequences, including job loss, depression, poverty. Eleven percent of Los Angeles County’s unsheltered homeless directly cite eviction or foreclosure as responsible for putting them on the street. Animals made homeless when their people lose housing face life in a shelter cage. Keeping dogs out of shelters and keeping people off the street are part of the same fight.

“Look,” says Larry Gross, longtime executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival and current president of Los Angeles’ Board of Animal Services Commission, “for L.A. to be a real no-kill city…you have to get the animals into homes, and when 64 percent of the population are renters, that means they have to be accepted in apartments. In addressing homelessness, there needs to be an emphasis on keeping people in the housing they have, because we’re never going to reduce the numbers unless we turn off the faucet.”

In August, the city of Los Angeles City Council Housing Committee recommended that the city explore a housing “right to counsel” ordinance that would guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. For tenants, that would be a game changer. Meanwhile, in less than two years, the various members of the Pet Resource Center legal team have successfully fought 79 pre-eviction notices, defended clients in eviction court a dozen times and kept 113 animals at home and out of shelters.

Between June 2018, when Prado opened HEART, and October, she says, she helped some 100 families, including defending 10 evictions in court; the rest of her cases didn’t even get that far. “Especially when a client is low-wage or Spanish-speaking, a landlord’s three-day notice is just a push to see if someone will push back,” she says. “The most important thing I do is preventing a threatened eviction from ever getting to court.”

Behind the numbers are faces human, canine: The man who’d gotten a 24-hour notice to get rid of his beloved small dog, Champagne. The single mother with a dog and three kids, one disabled. The family of five and dog terrified of losing a rent-controlled Wilmington apartment — who later returned to offer Prado flowers and a thank-you note. And the Baldwin Hills-area mother and daughter and their dog, Cookie; Prado’s emailed response to their landlord’s attorney went unanswered, her client’s next rent check was cashed, and the problem just went away.

The Veterinarian Brings His Healing Presence to Pets of the Unhoused

 

 

The man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he’s dressed in jeans and a doctor’s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.

“Hi, how are you?” he says when the tent flap opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.” He gestures at the dog. “Can I examine your pet?” 

First comes confused silence—you’re who?—then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.

These Skid Row streets hold the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and there’s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food. 

Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I began this work, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me as if I’d just dropped out of the sky.”

Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a Black track star in Albuquerque. Once, a coach asked about his future plans and laughed with disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a Black vet,” the coach said. Stewart goes on, “At the time I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: He was Black himself.” Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero. 

Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts.” Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed. 

The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nation’s highest.

“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says softly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.”

At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the man’s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge. 

He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin with—if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of unhoused men and women—providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.

Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline to the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.”

 

For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his family—he has three children—didn’t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced “The Street Vet” as a reality TV series­—it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channel­—and Stewart acknowledges he’s now a “media personality.” These days he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.

Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says “there are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,” he likes doing it his way. 

“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (“I’ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)

“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.) 

Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the man’s dog, Daisy. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart says.

“Oh, this is such a blessing,” the young man replies. 

Most Americans Have Pets. Almost One Third Can’t Afford Their Vet Care

Since mid-2020, more than a thousand low-income families have brought their sick and suffering pets to the nonprofit Pet Support Space, housed in a tiny Los Angeles storefront. One 14-year-old dog had a tumor that a veterinarian had quoted $5,000 to remove. A four-year-old pit bull had been vomiting for days, a cat’s painful bladder stones required surgery, a pug limped from the foxtail embedded in its paw. Skin and ear infections abounded. Neither the animals’ problems nor their owners’ inability to afford help for them was a surprise.

recent nationwide study found almost 28 percent of households with pets experienced barriers to veterinary care, with finances being the most common reason. In low-income households, the researchers found, financial and housing insecurity can increase the risks that animals will not receive the care they need. Sociologist Arnold Arluke, author of Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty estimates that 66 percent of pets in poverty have never seen a vet at all.

The “why” behind those numbers is complex. Of course, money is the primary problem. Veterinary care is expensive. A majority of practitioners work in for-profit clinics, consolidation in the industry has increased emphasis on profit margins, and vet prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. That has checkups starting at $50, dental cleaning going for $70-$400, and blood work and x-rays at $80-$250. If a dog breaks a leg or eats a sock, surgery costs begin at four figures.

High prices aren’t necessarily about greed. Michael Blackwell, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, is the chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) that was formed in 2016 to study this very problem. Veterinary training, he said, teaches vets to practice a “gold standard” of care, which means running every possible diagnostic test and pursuing every treatment option, even when a client’s budget is limited. (Many pet owners don’t know they can decline a recommended procedure, such as blood work, and even fewer are willing to decline care for fear of looking heartless.)

Some private vets offer struggling clients discounts, added Jeremy Prupas, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the City of Los Angeles, but they themselves carry an average of $150,000 in student loan debt, so they simply “can’t carry the immense existing need on their own.” Telling clients you can’t help them because they have no money is one of the leading causes of burnout in the veterinary profession, according to Prupas. Pet insurance might help defray costs but requires monthly premiums and comes with such a complicated array of deductibles, co-pays, caps, and exclusions that one how-to guide recommends hiring an attorney to review the policy. Credit cards designed for medical care financing, if one can qualify, can carry punishing interest rates as high as 26.99 percent.

Equally critical is a long-term failure on the part of the animal welfare movement to consider, much less prioritize, the needs of low-income pet owners. Since the 1990s, the rescue/humane world has poured vast amounts of funding and energy into cutting shelter euthanasia through adoption, but far less into helping those without money take care of the pets they have. “If you can’t afford an animal,” the thinking went, “then you shouldn’t have one.”

“Until recently, we focused on shelter-centric challenges,” acknowledged Amanda Arrington, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’s Pets for Life Program, which assists low-income pet owners. “There was a lot of judgment and making determinations on who was or wasn’t deserving of support and resources that was influenced by what I think a lot of society is influenced by, which is classism and racism. We conflated a lack of financial means and access with how much someone loves their pet or desires to care for it.”

In fact, owners can be punished because they can’t afford veterinary care — “most humane neglect cases stem from an inability to get care for a pet,” said Prupas. In Michigan, for example, failing to provide an animal with adequate care, including medical attention, is a misdemeanor that can carry 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. With a second violation, it becomes a felony.

The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true.

What exists for pet owners in poverty is a patchwork of low-cost care options, ranging from local efforts — such as Emancipet in Texas and the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — to well-funded national enterprises such as Pets for Life, which operates in several dozen cities. The great majority, however, offer only basic services like sterilization, vaccination, and flea treatments. “We are not a full-service veterinary clinic and do not treat sick or injured pets,” warns one low-cost option on its website. Another suggests that needy people travel, since “vets in smaller towns may charge lower fees,” or start a GoFundMe. As a result, many types of care are largely unavailable: emergency care (by some estimates one in three pets will have an emergency need each year), management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, medication, dental care (dental disease affects perhaps 80 percent of older dogs), and the mercy of humane euthanasia (which can run $50-$300).

The final piece of the care gap is a practical and cultural disconnect. Because many economically challenged neighborhoods are “vet deserts,” with few if any practitioners, it’s not easy to find care, and reaching it can require wrangling an unhappy animal over distance and/or arranging private transportation. Keeping an appointment at an office with weekday-only business hours or a once a month clinic can mean losing a day’s pay. Paperwork raises the fear of immigration status inquiries. The veterinary profession also remains one of the country’s whitest: Just as people who feel alienated or unwelcome don’t utilize human health care options, pointed out Arluke, they don’t utilize care for their pets.

The result has been suffering: most directly for animals that remain untreated, die from what vets call “economic euthanasia” (putting an animal down because treatment costs too much), or end up in shelters. Fear of a looming vet bill, and the mistaken belief that all shelter animals receive medical care, is a prime cause of owner surrender.

But people pay, too.

Some sick animals can infect their humans. Roundworms, for example, can pass through contact with pet feces and cause lung, heart, and eye problems. Blackwell reports meeting an optometrist who practices in a low-income Florida community who has seen increasing numbers of children with roundworm larvae in their eyes.

The psychic toll is just as real. Families in poverty who love their pets and for whom “they offer an emotional core and possibly one of the only sources of joy” face “mental and emotional” devastation from the unimaginable choice of weighing that love against potential financial ruin, said Blackwell. Professor Katja M. Guenther, author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, called the rupture of an animal-human bond “a kind of community violence” in a 2021 webinar.

Change seems increasingly possible. Covid-19 and the country’s recent racial and economic reckoning has prompted humane organizations to examine their assumptions and biases about who has the “right” to a pet’s love, and, said Arrington, there’s increasing recognition that “racial and economic injustice really impacts animal welfare.” Meanwhile, AlignCare, a new program out of Michael Blackwell’s Program for Pet Health Equity, is trying to create a national model of something like Medicaid for domestic animals. Under the program, families already found to be struggling (because they participate in SNAP or a similar program) and who ask for help at a shelter or veterinary clinic will be signed up and paired with a veterinary social worker or support coordinator. They’ll then be directed to a veterinarian who has agreed to offer preventative, dental, and even critical care, for a reduced fee; AlignCare will pay 80 percent of the cost. After three years of pilot programs in 10 disparate communities, it’s taking on its biggest challenge yet, Los Angeles, where one in five people live in poverty.

AlignCare won’t offer “gold standard” care, instead emphasizing preventative, incremental, and cost-saving measures (such as offering telehealth appointments and limiting diagnostics that won’t change treatment options) when possible. But it will expand the human safety net to include the animals most of us now consider part of our families. And while the effort is currently funded by grants from Maddie’s Fund, the Duffield Foundation, and Petsmart Charities, Blackwell’s goal is “community ownership:” The combined involvement of local vets, city animal services departments, social service agencies, rescue and community organizations, pet food and product manufacturers, and affluent pet owner-donors can make the model self-sustaining.

There is no perfect solution for low-income pet owners who need help accessing veterinary care. But growing awareness of the problem is a big step forward. “What we call ‘animal welfare’ is changing,” said Lori Weise, whose nonprofit, Downtown Dog Rescue, runs the Pet Support Space. “The distorted belief that ‘those people’ don’t care about their pets has never been true. People can’t afford care. Sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there; they themselves have never been in a hospital. As more people are brought into the system, we’ll see the first generation to get proper veterinary care.”

 

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