A few years ago, my husband and I visited New York City. We saw a homeless man with his beautiful healthy, mixed breed dog at his side. He was panhandling. I had always ignored the panhandlers but this time, something was different. I couldn’t get that dog out of my mind. I tried to imagine what brought the man to be homeless. Was it drugs, alcoholism? That’s the conclusion most people make about the homeless. This man didn’t look like an addict. I wondered why and how he got to where he was in life. And, what about his dog? It was obvious the dog was devoted to the man. He was not on a leash and could have run away at any time. I was confused as to the reason anyone who is homeless, who could barely feed or take care of themselves, would even consider having a pet.
When I returned home, I began to research about the homeless with pets. In my research, I came across the “National Coalition for the Homeless.” Their estimates indicated that 3.5 million people in America are homeless and that between 5%-10% of homeless have dogs and/or cats. In some areas of the country, the rate is as high as 25%. Most people who experience homelessness are homeless for a short period of time and usually need help to find housing or a rent subsidy. Unfortunately for those with pets it becomes more difficult. Many are forced to choose between their pet and a roof over their head. Surprisingly, most choose to stay on the streets with their pets. Why? The answer became obvious to me. Their pets are nonjudgmental; provide comfort and an emotional bond of loyalty. In some cases, they provide the homeless with protection and keep them warm.
My family has had dogs and cats since I can remember. I wondered what I would do if faced with homelessness? Could I give up my pets? That would be like giving up my children. They probably would be better off, but emotionally it would be a devastating decision to make. My children are grown now and have their own lives but my dogs … well they give me comfort and unconditional love, I could never give them up.
It was one of those “ah ha” moments when I realized that I could do something for those pets. I could start pet food donation sites across the country. They could accept donations of pet food from clients and have their staff take the donated pet food to where the homeless go for their own meals. Most homeless share their meals with their pets. At food kitchens, they wrap up a bite or two in a paper napkin to give to their pets.
I asked my own veterinarian if he would put a donation bin in the waiting room for pet food. He said, “Sure, let’s give it a try.” I sent out a local press release. To my surprise, the story was on the front page of my local newspaper. A reporter had gone out to the river where the homeless in my community congregate. A couple was living there in an old trailer with their dogs and said that dog food was needed. That day, and many days since, donations have poured in. My local food bank/soup kitchen still gives out pet food to the homeless and less fortunate.
Donors have told me that they felt such compassion for those pets but were afraid to approach the homeless. They felt fear for their own safety. They welcomed the opportunity that a pet food donation site gave them a safe place to help. Many other donors have told me how when they would see a homeless person with a pet, they immediately go to purchase water and pet food to give to them. Most tell me how grateful the homeless are for this kindness.
That one day in New York changed my life. It created a passion that I did not know I held. My past education, life experiences, and careers gave me the tools needed to start this unique nonprofit. I look forward to each day knowing that Pets of the Homeless is providing pet food and veterinary care to the hundreds of thousands of pets that wander the streets with their owners. I look forward to each day knowing that we can assist the calls from the homeless, or about to be homeless.
The homeless with pets are often desperate to find a shelter to go that will allow their pets. They seek help to find an agency that will give them pet food. They are frantic to find emergency veterinary care for injuries or illnesses.
Next time you see a homeless person with a pet, think of my story. Please share it with your friends and more importantly, donate a gift of cash. Such donations help pay for emergency care, wellness clinics and pet crates for homeless shelters. Check to see if there is a pet food and supplies donation site in your community. If there isn’t consider helping us to get one started.
Thank you for your interest and support,