For Anchorage’s homeless, pets can be a barrier to housing — but also a crucial comfort

Most homeless residents struggle to find any sort of rental housing, often due to past evictions, criminal history, mental health or substance use issues and insufficient income. Add on a dog and inventory becomes “nonexistent,” the city’s homeless coordinator said.

Inside a back room at Anchorage’s emergency winter mass homeless shelter, Toni Olive opened the door of an animal crate. Out skittered Elvis, a small, squirmy sausage of a dog with a curlicue tail and an underbite.

Elvis wiggled and jumped around Olive’s feet in a joyful greeting.

For 10 years, the chihuahua and pug mixed-breed has been Olive’s steadfast companion, the only consistent friend in the “darkest parts of my life,” she said.

“Elvis means more to me than family. I love him more than I do my family,” she said.

That includes when Olive began using drugs and developed a substance use disorder. Then, she lost her trailer and ended up on the streets, she said, sometimes staying in an abandoned house or camping in city greenspaces. The pair stayed in the city’s former mass shelter in Sullivan Arena over the last winter season until officials shuttered it in spring.

Olive and Elvis lived outside for the last several months. Now staying at the city shelter, Olive said she hopes to get help from social workers to get into permanent housing like an apartment. She’s trying to make daily trips to a methadone clinic.

Finding housing with a pet in Anchorage is a difficult task for anyone during the city’s current housing shortage — but it’s especially tricky for people experiencing homelessness.

While the companionship of animals often provides crucial comfort and helps stabilize vulnerable people, homeless residents also grapple with the extra barrier to housing and services that pets bring, as do the providers trying to house or shelter them.


Most homeless residents struggle to find any sort of rental housing, often due to past evictions, criminal history, mental health or substance use issues and insufficient income. Add on a dog, “and your inventory of housing has just — it’s non-existent,” said city homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson.

That’s also been one of the biggest barriers in getting people into shelter, Johnson said. In Anchorage, shelters and transitional housing programs largely don’t allow pets, save some exceptions for service animals.

“We heard over and over and over again, ‘I’m not going into shelter unless my babies can come with me.’ And there’s really no place in the city to do that,” Johnson said.

Last year, Johnson decided to try something new and allowed people to bring their pets to the city’s emergency mass shelter.

“As an everyday person, you think, ‘Why wouldn’t they just get rid of their dog and go inside?’ And you don’t realize, people who are struggling with either addiction or behavioral health problems, mental issues, their dog or their cat is like their lifeline. It’s like a partner,” she said.

‘How are they going to get rid of them?’

Opening the city shelter to pets didn’t come without some problems, Johnson said. Some people would disappear for days on end, leaving shelter staff to care for their pets. A few were abandoned.

This year the shelter is only allowing dogs, after allowing cats, rabbits and other sorts of pets proved too chaotic.

Still, ”we’re trying to get everyone in the door, no matter the circumstance, so that we can really push people into housing, get them to where they need to go, and not have that be a massive barrier,” Johnson said.

Arlene Deacon and her adult son, Daniel Deacon, are also staying at the city’s mass shelter with their 3-year-old dog, Chico.

Daniel Deacon is working full-time, but it’s difficult to find housing because of barriers including his past and, of course, Chico, he said.

They lost their home last October and spent the winter sleeping in their car with Chico.

“It’s been a long road and we’re still struggling trying to get a home,” Arlene Deacon said. “I just got back from the navigation (center) so we could try to get housing, and dealing with the dog, it’s so hard to find a place that do accept dogs, and I’m on disability and now it is a struggle, I tell you.”


Rob Seay, deputy director of Henning Inc., the nonprofit running the city mass shelter, said homeless residents often face stigma when it comes to having pets, generally from people who don’t understand what it is to be homeless.

“They don’t see the family of six that’s had these dogs with them, then they’re living paycheck to paycheck, now they’re homeless. How are they going to get rid of them? No,” Seay said.

Many people in the shelter system have experienced serious traumas and abandonment, and develop deep connections with their loyal pets, Johnson said.

“I think there’s really something to say about that kind of bond. And then for someone to come out and say, ‘Well, you just are undeserving of that bond, because you’re impoverished, because you’re homeless’ — is really a narrative I think we try to combat,” Johnson said.

However, as the city contends with finding permanent housing for hundreds of people, pets present a sometimes frustrating conundrum for service providers on a regular basis, said Cathleen McLaughlin with Restorative Reentry Services, which was contracted by the city to provide third-party oversight at its shelters last winter.

“There are some that absolutely say, ‘I will not take a bed at one of the hotels if they don’t allow my dog to come,’” McLaughlin said. “And unfortunately, sometimes that means they don’t get the bed, even though the bed is being offered to them.”


[As frigid conditions arrive, hundreds in Anchorage without shelter or warming]

A hard life

While some think that if a person can’t afford housing, they can’t be taking good care of a pet, Johnson said she’s known people to forgo meals to feed their animals.

That’s true for Greg Smith, who for years has camped in and around Anchorage’s Davis Park and the adjacent snow dump.

For Smith, his three dogs — Zeus, Hera and Ares — offer companionship, warmth in the winter, and protection.

“I get along better with dogs than with humans. I’ve had ‘em my whole life. My mom said it was because of the love they give. And I love waking up in a pile of dogs in the morning and getting all the licks and attention,” Smith said.

Hera keeps the bears away, he said. Zeus, the oldest, has been with Smith for nearly 12 years, and is a fierce security system.


“He changed my life, this one here,” Smith said of Zeus. “His whole life is dedicated to me. You can’t raise your voice around me. You can’t raise your hands around me. You can’t run up from behind me.”

At a different camp in Davis Park, Megan Salazar pulled back a piece of plastic sheeting hung over the entryway of a small shack, revealing a cat and two kittens curled into blankets.

The adult, Princess Mittens, is a black and white polydactyl that Salazar adopted after finding the cat in the encampment across the street at the snow dump site. The kittens, Mayweather and Tyson, Salazar adopted from a friend.

The three are newer pets to Salazar, who lost a previous cat that fled from their truck during a wreck.

Other past pets have come and gone — a dog was stolen, and while living at Third Avenue and Ingra Street this summer, she opted to give away two other cats after someone set her tent on fire.

She acknowledges it can be hard to keep them safe.

But Salazar has long struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental health disorders run in her family, she said. Now homeless, Salazar said she struggles with deepened trauma from bad experiences living on the streets and in camps.

Standing in deep snow outside the shack, Salazar tucked Tyson into her fleece sweater.


“Being completely honest, if I didn’t have that cat, I wouldn’t be here right now. I wanted to opt out more than a few times,” Salazar said.

For her, the responsibility of getting up to feed and care for a cat is critical, she said.

“That’s what kept me going ... waking up to him kissing me or snuggling up to me when all I want to do is give up.”

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at