Holding the flyscreen door of her new home as her three excited huskies scamper inside for the first time is a day Kerry feared would never come.

After more than a year of homelessness and five years of unstable housing, the 52-year-old has her “babies” back — her dogs Sheba, Zuca and Jasper. 

“My son even said to me; “Mum, your mental health is gonna just totally do a 180 when you get the dogs back’,” Kerry says.

The husky trio were delivered to Kerry’s new social house in Adelaide by the crisis charity that came to her aid when the single mother and her two sons, then 13 and 16, were forced out of their pet-friendly home following a rent increase in 2019. 

Kerry cuddles Sheba in the backyard of their new home.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

Unable to find a rental she could afford on a disability support pension that allowed dogs, the family has been bouncing between crisis accommodation, motels and temporary social housing.

She was ultimately forced to surrender her beloved dogs when she took refuge in a homeless shelter, and feared they would be euthanased. 

She made a panicked phone call to her friend Jen Howard, the founder of Safe Pets Safe Families.

“I was beside myself and I said, ‘I can’t do it. You’re going to have to surrender the dogs for me because I can’t do it and we’re not going to get a house because of them’,” Kerry says.

Kerry, 52, has been reunited with her pets after more than a year of being homeless.(ABC NEWS: Alana Calvert)

Priced out of pet-friendly rentals 

In 2012, when the family adopted the first of their three dogs, Adelaide’s private rental market was a different place in terms of affordability and attitudes towards tenants having pets. 

That year, Adelaide’s median weekly rental price was $300 and the vacancy rate peaked at 1.9 per cent. 

In January 2024, the city’s median rent was $637 and vacancy rates sat at 0.5 per cent.

Kerry’s huskies inspect their new yard after arriving at the social house she finally secured after a five-year search.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

According to Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute research, more pet-friendly housing policies are critical to make sure people in already precarious living situations can transition to safer housing. 

Associate Professor Debbie Faulkner is the co-executive director of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Markets, Values and Inclusion and worked on the 2021 study. 

She said the current trajectory of increasing rental prices was making it “almost impossible” for people on any kind of income support or pension to feed themselves “let alone feed an animal” but said the benefits of owning pets were huge. 

“For homeless people [and] people that are struggling … the only companion they’ve often got is their pet. The only thing that loves them unconditionally, I suppose. So, highly central to their well-being, yet it makes it incredibly difficult to find a private rental,” Professor Faulkner said.

“You can’t get into crisis accommodation with a pet [or] boarding houses, you know, so the system’s not made for people to have pets.”

Kerry’s mental health suffered from being apart from her huskies for 15 months.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

Unconditional love

Kerry had waited years to adopt a dog for her sons. 

She fled family violence and had experienced abuse as a child, so wanted to make sure she could provide a safe home for a pet. 

Jasper the 12-year-old husky was able to help Kerry and her sons cope with the trauma of domestic abuse.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

“I took [my son’s] to different counsellors and … and I think a lot of them didn’t really help at all. If anything, it made things worse,” Kerry says.

“It wasn’t until we got Jasper that my boys were just so much happier. They were calmer, they were a lot more relaxed …  [He] brought a healing in all of us, and I thought, ‘man, if I had known this earlier, I would have got a dog years ago’.”

They adopted two other rescue huskies soon after, not knowing how difficult things were about to become. 

Jasper has learnt how to wake Kerry up from her night terrors.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

Rise in ‘hidden homelessness’

Associate Professor Faulkner said the housing crisis had been exacerbated by a dwindling supply of social and public housing and, unlike the private rental market, had always been more accommodating to pets. 

“Fifteen to 20 years ago we had more social housing, in comparison to the demand for social housing,” she said. 

“You’ve always been allowed to have a pet in public housing … but the waiting list for social housing now is so long that people with pets just can’t get into.

“It’s a terrible situation we’re in at the moment for a lot of people. And it’s not just your typical person on the street that you see, there’s a lot of hidden homelessness … people in their cars or living with someone else on the couch.”

Professor Faulkner’s study also found a spike in animal surrenders during times of housing crisis. 

Zuca and Sheba inspect the backyard of the social house that is their new home after being reunited with Kerry.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

The ABC has spoken to four Adelaide-based rescue centres and all reported a significant increase in surrenders.

None of the charities said they could meet the current demand and were turning many away. 

The Animal Welfare League (AWL) of South Australia said both of its shelters were over capacity and there was a significant waitlist for people trying to rehome their animals.

The charity also reported a decrease in the number of stray pets being reclaimed by their owners.

Volunteer-run rescue charity Scruffers Lovers, which takes on both surrendered dogs and those from pounds, said cost-of-living pressures and the competitive rental market were contributing to the rise in demand. 

The founder of Safe Pets, Safe Families Jen Howard said Kerry’s reunion was a special moment.

Safe Pets, Safe Families founder and chief executive officer Jennifer Howard.(Supplied)

“Moments like today of returning animals are what keep me going,” Ms Howard says.

But at a time when the “phones are ringing off the hook” for her charity and so many others, her eyes well with tears when she talks about the many cases she couldn’t help. 

“The homelessness crisis is so horrible at the moment, it’s huge … It’s heartbreaking, especially when you do get a phone call … [from someone who] you know their pet is everything to them,” Ms Howard says.

A home at last

Back at Kerry’s new home, as she hugs and kisses her dogs with relief, she knows she is one of the lucky ones. 

Like many people who rescue dogs, Kerry insists it is the other way around.

Jen Howard’s house-warming gift to Kerry was a doormat with her three huskies on it. Kerry instead framed it and put on her wall.(ABC News: Alana Calvert)

“To have my dogs back is everything,” she says.

“I think it’s so important for people to recognise that there is a big link between animals and mental health, a massive link. And I don’t think there’s enough support around that.

“If it wasn’t for her [Ms Howard] … we wouldn’t have the dogs. And now, I’ve got a beautiful house and I get to have my dogs and they’re my babies.”