Tulsa is adding an animal shelter to help the homeless stay with their pets

Since losing her husband earlier this year, not much has been going well for Debi Copeland.

But having a friend by her side, she said, at least helped her survive emotionally.

“We’re both very relaxed. I think she gets that from me,” she said of Lily, her canine companion, who watched sleepily from a blanket next to Copeland at the Tulsa Day Care Center on Friday.

Copeland, 69, said she and Lily — a 5-year-old shih tzu-Jack Russell mix — are staying at the center’s shelter and will be there until at least June 21, when they are expected to move into an apartment.

In the meantime, to keep Lily with her, the shelter staff gave her a portable stroller to use.

“They’ve been really good to us,” Copeland said.

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Situations like Copeland’s have been on the minds of downtown officials and city leaders for some time. But now, finally, they say help is on the way.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Friday at the Day Center for a new animal shelter that, when completed, will house up to 10 animals while their owners stay at the shelter or access services.

“The data tells us that about 20 percent to 25 percent of homeless people have pets, and that’s often a barrier to accessing services,” said Mack Haltom, director of the Day Center.

The 600-square-meter facility, which will open in November, will be air-conditioned.

Money for the project includes $230,000 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funding, along with $252,000 in private funding.

Tulsa Vice Mayor Cassia Carr, a member of the city’s Housing, Homelessness and Mental Health Task Force, said she and her fellow task force members, along with Mayor GT Bynum, enthusiastically support the project.

“We need a place for people to bring their pets,” Carr said. “I don’t want to get rid of my pet, and they want their pets. So people need to be able to bring their pets and then they won’t be on the streets. They will be here to access the services they need to improve their lives.”

“They gave me hope”

Copeland moved back to Tulsa in January after several years in Joplin and Houston.

She and her husband were divorced, she said, but were in the process of reconciling.

When he died unexpectedly earlier this year, it was a blow, she said.

Copeland had always been able to support herself. An Air Force veteran and former teacher, he taught for many years at Whitman Elementary School.

But given her age now and circumstances, she was forced to seek services.

“I never thought I’d see this side of Tulsa,” she said of living in a homeless shelter. “But here I am.”

While Copeland hasn’t been deterred from seeking the services she needs, that’s not the case for many homeless people who have pets, officials said.

Carr said, “We found that more often than not, a lot of these people don’t seek services because they know they won’t be able to bring their pet or service animal with them. And by not looking for temporary housing, they will also miss out on the supports that partners like the Day Center will provide.”

Councilor Lori Decter-Wright, who joined Carr in speaking at the inauguration, added: “Now they will not be faced with the choice between helping themselves or helping their animals. They can do both.”

Day Center officials will work with other organizations to plan and operate the shelter.

“We will be forming an advisory board to help guide us with policies and best practices,” said Sara Delgado, chair of the Day Center’s board of directors.

“Also, once it’s up and running, we want to keep it that way,” Delgado added. “We need operational funding, but we also need things like dog food and treats, collars and leashes. So if anyone has them, we’ll always welcome them.”

While her life took a turn she never expected, Copeland is grateful for the staff and services of the Day Care Center.

“They gave me hope,” she said.

The news that the center is getting an animal shelter “is very exciting,” Copeland added.

“Not that I plan to be here in November. But I’m glad it will be here for others like me.”

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