MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — By September of 2017, there were puppies in the laundry room, dogs in the kitchen. Back then, the tally was about five in all. Beth Van Zandt had begun fostering dogs and turning away a wet nose didn't seem neighborly.

Watching them eat, Van Zandt asked her husband how many dogs would constitute a divorce.

"And he's like, 'You're pushing it,'" Van Zandt said. "And within two weeks we had 10 more."

When she began, she said she did not realize the scope of the need. Scott Dahlke, director of Muscatine Center for Social Action said that when people come in to stay at the homeless shelter, sometimes a pet is in tow. Unfortunately, MCSA has nowhere to keep pets.

"We saw that people were choosing to either couch hop or live in their cars because they didn't want to give up their pets," Dahlke said. "We were watching this and seeing it was becoming a barrier for people who could otherwise use some help."

On any given day, MCSA has at least three individuals or families in need of a place to put their pet, the Muscatine Journal reported. For Dahlke, if worries about pets were keeping people away, they needed to find a solution.

"If they are given the choice between us and their dog, they are going to choose their dog," Dahlke said. "As they look for places that will allow pets, we talk about couch hopping. First it's a smoker's house. Then the alcoholic. Pretty soon you are running out of places to be and get into some predatory situations."

Learning about this problem, Van Zandt decided to do something about it. In February of 2017, Van Zandt, then still the Muscatine Journal's staff photographer, began what she called Safe Harbor Pets, an attempt to foster the animals of folks coming to the shelter until they found some stable housing.

As Dahlke explained, when people come in or call wondering what will happen to their dogs, MCSA gets in touch with Van Zandt, and she comes to pick up the animal.

"I think it just really gives people options they didn't have before," Dahlke said. "It takes one more crisis off peoples' shoulders. When people are facing eviction, they are in crisis mode. If they are focused on a pet, they are unable to completely focus on housing."

"There is this stigma that if they can't afford to take care of themselves, they shouldn't have a dog," Van Zandt said. She remembers one instance where she fostered a dog. DHS ended up taking the kids, but before then, Van Zandt said the household was less than home.

"The dog was the only consistent, unconditional love that those kids had every single day they came home," Van Zandt said. "That little dog was waiting for them. Not yelling at them. Not fighting with anyone. That dog was there."

The Pet Food Pantry of Muscatine is already working to get pet care items into the hands of those who cannot afford it.

While the human food pantry is no relation to the pet food pantry, Nora Dwyer, president of the Muscatine Community Food Pantry, is helping Van Zandt get started. On Mondays, if people ask for it, the Muscatine Community Food Pantry will give small bags of dog food or cat food. But Van Zandt is hoping to supplement this with a vision for the long term.

"If they need a larger supply of food, now we will have somewhere for them to go," Van Zandt said.

They are looking for donations of dog and cat food, kitty litter, gently used collars, bowls and leashes and two-gallon zip lock bags.

"I think we are finding in things like the ALICE report that people are under all sorts of pressures right now," Dwyer said. "What groups like this are trying to do is fill some of those gaps. It takes the pressure off people so they can be a little less stressed. They can puzzle through their situation a little better."

For Van Zandt, the mission is clear: how do we keep people and their pets together?

"It might be the older lady who doesn't have anybody else, but she does have that little cat or dog," Van Zandt said. "Why shouldn't she have an animal that loves her. Why shouldn't she have something that is happy to see her."

___

Information from: Muscatine Journal, http://www.muscatinejournal.com