Sometimes when we come across people experiencing homelessness in our communities it’s hard not to notice their pets. According to Petsofthehomeless.org, about 5-10% of homeless people have a pet, though it’s a hard number to capture.
You might be wondering, “why would someone who is homeless have a pet?”.
There are a variety of reasons why you might see someone sleeping on the street with an animal, from companionship to health. A loving pet can be a lifeline when living without a home and social support. Here are a few more perspectives to keep in mind the next time you see a pooch or feline with a guardian who is experiencing homelessness.
The Situation is Temporary
In most cases, homelessness is a transitional phase for both the person and the animal. While around 18 percent of homeless people are chronically homeless, over 80 percent are "between homes." In most of these cases, the individual had the pet while living in a previous home and continues to take care of it while on the street.
“My dog and I have been homeless for four years. I am forty-three years old and Olivia is seven. I am a current student at CCSF and in the pursuit of an associate degree in Paralegal studies.I look forward to a place I can call my home. I hope that the generosity of others during our time of need will enable us to return the favor.”
Purpose and Accountability
For some, choosing to keep a pet can provide an uprooted person a sense of purpose and accountability. Keeping a pet healthy and safe allows people to focus on something other than themselves for part of the day, and this can feel empowering in an otherwise disempowering circumstance. Pet ownership takes great responsibility, and this is no different for those who are homeless. In fact it can be transformative for someone experiencing homelessness.
The Homeless Hub reviewed a study done by Leslie Irvine called Animals as Lifechangers and Lifesavers: Pets in the Redemption Narratives of Homeless People that shows just how transformative pet ownership can be for homelessness. The Homeless Hub explains, “Several people said their pets helped them manage their addictions. Tommy adopted a stray dog named Monty after his release from jail. He’d stopped using alcohol and drugs by necessity, but said it was having Monty around after that helped him stay clean. Another interviewee, Donna, had a similar story with her adopted dog Athena, who she credits for her sobriety.”
Homelessness can be a very isolating experience, and pet companionship is known to help people to feel happier and live longer, more rewarding lives. In some cases, a pet is the only source of love for someone who is sleeping on the street.
"I love hanging out with my kitten (Roomba) in my unit here at the Verona Hotel- he provides me with great support and company and the way he cuddles and purrs when we're hanging out."
Mental Health Benefits
Approximately one-third of homeless people suffer from a mental illness. Pets have well-known therapeutic benefits, and a furry or feathered companion might be the only health-related assistance a homeless person is able to receive.
“For some reason only animals fill a gap that no human can fill and its not uncommon for folks to feel this way which is why they have these animals to help on a level that puts the twinkle in our eyes everyday” - Maricruz, a US Army veteran who suffers from PTSD, read her story here.
There are many considerations for personal safety when a person is experiencing homelessness, unfortunately for women in particular. Living on the street can be very dangerous and an animal can help someone protect themselves and their few possessions.
In this video Tristan and Robyn, a couple experiencing homelessness in Canada, give an honest answer to why they have their pets as part of their lives.
A Tough Decision
One challenge for someone who is homeless is that most shelters and SROs do not accept pets or animals. It is often difficult to part with an animal who is such a close companion, which puts both of them out on the streets.
"I know I have the option to go back into housing, but doing so would mean I would have to abandon my dog, Tyrell. Although Tyrell is a service dog, most of the available housing will not allow pets and I refuse to leave my best friend behind."
The next time you see a homeless person with an animal companion, remember that there is likely more to the story than you might imagine. A little compassion can go a long way; so send a smile and lend a hand when you can to homeless persons and their pets.