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At Urban Hound’s Dog Care Academy, people dealing with homelessness get a new career path

Kayla Demoura, with Simba, struggles with homelessness. Recently she started working at the Urban Hound's dog care academy in downtown Boston.
Kayla Demoura, with Simba, struggles with homelessness. Recently she started working at the Urban Hound's dog care academy in downtown Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Kayla Demoura never expected to end up homeless.

Stuck in an abusive relationship and with two young children, the Fall River native found herself without a place to live after getting evicted from her apartment.

"My ex was the main person paying for the bills, and he wasn’t paying the rent,” says Demoura, 26, whose kids were taken away by the Department of Children and Family Services. Unable to pay the back rent, Demoura found herself on the street. “So I became homeless.”

A lifelong animal lover, Demoura heard from someone at St. Francis House, a homeless day shelter in downtown Boston, about their new Dog Care Academy program, which trains people experiencing homelessness to work in the dog-care field. Though she had always wanted to get into dog-walking, the lack of experience always held her back.

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“I was like, I don’t have professional experience,” says Demoura, who previously worked in fast food or housekeeping jobs.

Since January, Demoura has served as a member of the inaugural class of interns at the Urban Hound at St. Francis House’s Dog Care Academy. But getting the program off the ground was no simple task.

Right around the same time that St. Francis House purchased the former Boston Young Men’s Christian Union building on Tremont Street with the goal of using it to create skill-based job training opportunities, President and CEO Karen LaFrazia brought her dog into the Urban Hound Hotel & Daycare on Malden Street in the South End.

“I brought the dog in to get him bathed, and I’m sitting there and go, ‘Huh, dog day care? This could work,’” says LaFrazia.

With a little market research, St. Francis House discovered there was no brick and mortar dog day care in the area, despite hundreds of dogs living in the neighborhood. They also found that the dog care industry has a relatively low entry point for people who don’t have a lot of job experience.

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“It’s a great industry for folks to get into, because there’s lots of different career pathways — from dog walking to grooming to veterinary tech training, and it pays a living wage,” says LaFrazia.

So when a St. Francis House volunteer who also brought her dog into the Malden Street location mentioned LaFrazia’s idea to the team at the Urban Hound, owner Rebecca Willson jumped into action.

“She was like ‘You should send them an e-mail and see!’” says Willson, who opened the Malden Street location in 2010. “So we did, and that was almost two years ago now.”

In October, the Urban Hound at St. Francis House opened its new dog day-care location near the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets for dogs 35 pounds and under. The building also houses 46 units of affordable housing, as well as several administrative offices that moved over from St. Francis House’s main location across the street. The first class of interns, who started the six-month program in January, receive a stipend of $160 per week. In addition to the 15 hours a week they spend shadowing at the Urban Hound, interns spend five hours a week in the classroom.

“My goal for the classes is to touch on a lot of things,” says training program coordinator Leah Widdicombe. “We kind of have these little buckets we’re trying to fill.”

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Each day of the week has a different focus, ranging from dog behavior to customer service to personal finance and the pet industry. Fridays serve as a reflection day, focusing on how each intern is moving toward realizing their goals.

“We do a lot of self-assessment,” says Widdicombe, who is already recruiting for the second class of interns. “They’re getting a good idea of ‘What are my strengths? What do I need to work on in all of these areas?’”

Three months into the program, interns will meet with employment specialists to help them determine what kind of role they’d like to move into, while working on their interviewing, resume building, and job search skills.

“One of the things I know has been wonderful for them is they are able to feel a sense of professionalism. Their identity, who they are — they’re not defined by being homeless,” says LaFrazia. "That’s not how they see themselves. They’re peers and colleagues with all the staff here. It’s transformational in a couple different ways.”

While she’s only a couple months into the internship, Kayla Demoura has big goals for her future. She’s currently living in a shelter in Cambridge, but she’s working to obtain permanent housing, even though it’s a struggle with a past eviction on her record. But she’d also like to become an official employee at the Urban Hound. And last week, she was notified by the DCF that she’s getting her daughter back.

“This is definitely something I could see myself doing every single day. I feel like since getting into the program, I’ve been achieving a lot more than just the program itself,” says Demoura.

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“It was a huge positive change in my life.”