Living on the streets of San Diego for more than half a year, Roberto Zapata said he reached a point when he knew he wanted to have a dedicated place to shelter while he looked for a job.
While there continues to be more places for individuals experiencing homelessness to find housing around the county, both temporary and permanent, the challenge was a little more complicated for Zapata, who has a pair of traveling companions – four-legged friends Oliver, 7 and Henry, 4. And finding shelter where animals that aren’t official assistance or service dogs are allowed is not always easy.
Zapata said that if he was by himself, he would have tried to find a place to stay with friends, but keeping Oliver and Henry was important to him. So he chose to find shelter where he knew he and his dogs would be welcome − at Father Joe’s Villages.
“It was getting to the point where I needed to be somewhere and I’d never been homeless,” said Zapata, 39, a South Carolina native who has been in San Diego for 17 years. “It was important to have my dogs with me because they are a big support system. When I thrive, they thrive.”
“I went to Father Joe’s to get into a stable place, and that way I could keep on with my health and keep my dogs healthy.”
Jesse Casement, division director of client services at Father Joe’s Villages, said that in 2021, 103 households with 120 animals entered and stayed at a Father Joe’s Villages shelter.
“Most pet owners would do whatever it takes to care for, protect and keep their animal because pets are family,” Casement said. “In order to truly assist our clients, it is absolutely crucial that we welcome their entire family – including those members with fur, feathers, shells or scales – into our shelter facilities.”
Established in 1950, Father Joe’s Villages serves San Diegans experiencing homelessness and poverty and is now San Diego’s largest homeless services provider. Starting out as a small space in a chapel, Father Joe’s Villages has grown substantially and now includes a comprehensive campus and scattered-site programs that house more than 2,000 people nightly.
Father Joe’s helps address needs for health care, substance use disorder treatment, job training, therapeutic childcare and more for those experiencing homelessness. Since 2010 it has made extra efforts to reach out and help those individuals who have companion animals, and since 2021, all shelters operated by Father Joe’s Villages have allowed clients and residents to bring pets.
In August, Father Joe’s Villages received a $548,000 grant from the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s Pet Assistance and Support Program. The funds will support efforts to keep homeless individuals and their animal companions together by providing pet-friendly shelter programs.
‘Game Changer’ For Father Joe’s Clients
“It’s a game changer for our clients,” Casement said. “It changes the feel of the milieu. Animals are a part of the community. We have, for example, in our courtyards, kids playing ball with their dogs. The state funds will allow us to serve the full family, which includes people’s animals.”
She said Father Joe’s Villages currently has 35 animals living with 32 people among its clients. From May 2010 until February of this year, Casement said it served 605 animals – a blend of service animals and pets – in 438 households.
Father Joe’s Villages has partnerships with the San Diego Humane Society, Helen Woodward Animal Center and the Street Dog Coalition for different services and needs. The state funding will further help with preventative care.
Casement said the grant will support expenses involved in welcoming companion animals to all Father Joe’s Villages’ facilities. Those include staffing needs, pet supplies and food, enrichment items like toys and puzzles, veterinary care, training classes and the creation of a pet bathing area.
Along with accepting pets, the grant will also make it easier for clients to leave their pets in a safe, comfortable crate or cage while they search for jobs or go to work.
“Clients can leave the animals safely in their rooms while they are away,” Casement said. “It also helps clients be better tenants when they are in future permanent housing. The dog will have had crate training and behavior training.”
Casement said that Father Joe’s officials see that animals help their clients with not only comfort but for their stability as well − and that they are not alone.
“There’s a co-sheltering collaborative of people and their animals, nationwide and internationally who are really focusing on normalizing sheltering people with their animals,” she said.
It’s been nearly nine months since Zapata, Oliver, and Henry settled in to one of Father Joe’s Villages shelter programs for single adults.
A Safe Place for Dogs
Zapata is about to complete a training program offered by REstart Property Management, a partner of Father Joe’s Villages’ Skills Training Enhancement Programs. He currently has a job at Snapdragon Stadium while he trains for a future career in property management.
Zapata says Father Joe’s Villages has provided pet supplies, paid for behavior training classes for Oliver and Henry and fostered a safe place for his dogs to be while he is away from the program.
He has also utilized onsite veterinary services for preventative care like monthly flea treatments and vaccinations, as well as minor health care when one of his dogs was not well.
Zapata laughs when he said he worries that his dogs are “a little too comfortable” at the village and that he has to remind them regularly not to get too cozy because “this is not (their) forever home.”
Able to save money with his new job, Zapata said his next goal is to move out to permanent housing. But right now, he says: “It feels good knowing I don’t have to worry about (my dogs) being cared for.”
Father’s Joe’s Villages
FOUNDED: 1950 as St. Mary of the Wayside Chapel
CEO: Deacon Jim Vargas
HEADQUARTERS: East Village
BUSINESS: Nonprofit agency serving people experiencing homelessness
REVENUE: $53 million
SOCIAL IMPACT: Father Joe’s Villages provides shelter, comprehensive services and housing to more than 2,500 individuals in need each night.
NOTABLE: This year, the organization saw the completion of Saint Teresa of Calcutta Villa, which brings 407 units to downtown San Diego in a modern, 14-story building.