AKRON, Ohio -- When people tried to pet her, the cat snuggled closer to owner Susan McIntosh. The cat is the first pet to be housed at the new home of Family Promise, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless families. Recently, it opened a kennel so that the families could keep their pets with them.
Most homeless shelters do not take pets, forcing owners to find someone to watch a pet, or to give it away. Some would rather live on the streets than give up an animal.
"Sadly, we had a lady who had a 5- and a 7-year old earlier in the spring looking for shelter. She contacted us and wanted to come to the program but we didn't have the kennel yet and had no way to help with her pet," Executive Director Jeff Wilhite recounted. "Because of that, she said she absolutely would not come. She said, 'Look, my family has been devastated. I can't do this to my 5- and 7-year-old -- this dog has been a part of their life since birth. I can't put them through one more trauma.'"
Wilhite said the group served 26 families last year and 24 already this year. The new kennel can house up to four dogs and four cats.
"Pets become a member of your family," Wilhite said. "They are a part of who you are collectively as a family unit."
Four families can be accommodated during the day, where they have access to computers to search for jobs and permanent housing. In the evenings, they are placed at churches and other locations while their pets stay in the Promise kennel. Families are served on average 30-45 days.
McIntosh, who was holding the cat, has a degree in psychology and minor in linguistics, but lost her job. She stays at Harvest Home while her 9-year-old cat is at Promise. Because she is single she doesn't qualify to stay, only visit.
"It's not easy for me living without (Charise). I miss her," McIntosh said. "I come every day to see her. I'm allergic to cats, but I'm more allergic to being alone."
PetSmart, the national pet supply chain, gave $35,000 to build the kennel and plans to open others this year at Promise facilities.
Jim Morris, regional vice president of PetSmart, said pets give unconditional love, a constant that helps keep families together.
"We know the impact pets have on our lives," Morris said.
Wilhite said the gift has resulted in other organizations getting involved.
"It's the collaboration of various agencies with all of their donations, including the host church families who take the families to their churches for the evening, providing room for beds, dinner, snacks and entertainment," Wilhite said. "It's a testament to the community on how well the different agencies can work well with each other."