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GSSW PhD Students Receive Grant to Assist Unhoused Youth and their Pets

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Nika Anschuetz





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Three Small Dogs in the street

Laura Coddington and Erin Flynn, doctoral students in the Graduate School of Social Work, are trained to challenge systems. Last year, Coddington, who studies unhoused youth, and Flynn, who studies the human-animal connection, joined forces to protect a converging interest – the relationship between unhoused youth and their pets.  

There are roughly 11,000 homeless shelters across the United States, with only a fraction allowing pets, leaving many with a tough choice — a physical home or remaining with their pets, a different kind of home. According to Flynn, unhoused young people are the least likely to seek services when experiencing homelessness, and policies that prohibit pets serve as a barrier. 

“For young people who have chosen to have pets, I think there’s a lot of stigma around that choice,” Flynn says. “Some of the early studies that we were seeing in this field were working to dismantle and really complexify assumptions that people make around unhoused people, especially young people having the right to have pets, and recontextualizing the importance and the unique ways that pets uniquely fulfill needs for unhoused young people.” 

With the help of a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), a non-profit research and education organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the demonstration of the positive health impacts of companion animals, Coddington and Flynn will study meaningful ways to change the Denver Metro housing system, designing policies that allow pets to remain with their humans. 

Since HABRI’s founding in 2010, the organization has created the world’s largest online library of human-animal interaction science, funding more than $3 million in research projects. HABRI president Steven Feldman says he anticipates this study to provide feedback to make a real-world impact.  

“Homeless shelters across America need guidance on how to better serve unhoused people with pets,” Feldman says. “This research can inform policies and procedures to preserve and strengthen the human-animal bond and produce better outcomes for unhoused people with pets.” 

That bond, Coddington says, helps prevent isolation. 

“Many of these young people had never even had their own room, and they were now living in an apartment on their own (due to program rules, having roommates was very difficult), with very little outside support, literally overnight. Many of them relied on their pets, ranging from hermit crabs to German Shepherds, to provide much-needed company and structure to their days.” 

For the DU study, the pair will interview 20 young people experiencing homelessness and 20 service providers including homeless shelters. In the end, they hope to have a set of recommendations that ultimately, Flynn says, could serve as a template for other municipalities in regions across the country.  

“[I hope] it will also be a process that adds valuable insights into how to also do this for adult populations, which will be grappling with different parts of the housing service system, different types of policies and just different life contexts. Our hope is that it'll lay some good groundwork for expanding this to address this for different populations and regions,” Flynn says.