Addressing Pets of the Homeless
By: Devin Morrissey
Pets live in about 68% of American households, which means that there are about 85 million running, crawling, flying, swimming, or slithering animals inside homes. However, just because you don’t have a home, doesn’t mean that you don’t want the companionship, loyalty, and love that only an animal can offer.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 550,000 people in America experienced homelessness on any one night in 2018. There is limited data on how many homeless individuals own pets, but it’s estimated that as many as 25% have at least one. This means that about 125,000 animals live in shelters or out in the open with their owners.
Having a pet while homeless comes with a unique set of challenges and benefits. Many people who don’t have homes might feel misunderstood when they refuse to give up their animals. We aim to be a voice for pets of the homeless and bring awareness to this problem in America.
Homelessness and Poverty in the United States
When you think of the homeless, you might have images of middle-aged men and women in large cities begging for money. However, the face of the homeless population has changed in recent years. On average, people who are homeless are older and suffer from more health conditions than those in the past. About half of all homeless people in the U.S. are ethnic minorities, and around 70% are men. What’s more, on any given night, there are almost 60,000 families without a home.
While it’s true that poverty isn’t a new problem in the United States, experts have seen shifts in this social issue. Economic changes in our culture leave new people looking for a place to stay every day. Most people think of poverty and homelessness as an inner-city issue, but recent years have brought about a growth of suburban poverty. More than 43 million people were living under the poverty line in 2015, with 14.5 million under the age of 18. People living below the poverty line are about split down the middle between urban and suburban areas.
When you consider the shift in poverty and homelessness, it might be a bit easier to see why so many animals end up living on the streets with their owners. Most people who have pets can easily understand why surrendering a pet would be the last thing you would want to do after losing your home.
Support for Pets and the Homeless
Regardless of where you live, there are many benefits of having a pet. Many experts support that interacting with animals can decrease the secretion of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and might even lower your blood pressure. Pets can sometimes help you connect with others in social situations and boost your mood. If you’re living with mental illness or struggle with anxiety and depression, many studies support the use of dogs to minimize the symptoms of these conditions.
According to a 2015 study of homeless youth in Los Angeles, many pet owners report that pets keep them company and help them to feel loved. Some of the study participants even reported decreased symptoms of depression and loneliness compared to their peers who didn’t own a pet.
The structure provided by pet ownership can be affirming. For Heather, a dog owner struggling with homelessness, having Poppy (her dog) means that she has something to wake up for each day. She’s even changed her lifestyle because she doesn’t want to risk losing her dog. She now has a case manager who is helping her get Poppy registered as a service animal and find consistent housing.
Heather and Poppy
Photo credit: Annabel Clark for the Guardian
Struggles of Pet Ownership When Homeless
Finding a pet-friendly homeless shelter isn’t easy. Some shelters don’t allow the homeless to bring animals with them, even during the cold, which can leave them searching for ways to protect their animals in the winter. Shelters shy away from including pets in their services because of liability, increased insurance costs, potential allergic reactions, and a lack of ways to deal with the needs of the animals.
The homeless not only struggle to find a shelter when they have a pet but also permanent housing and even jobs. Some low-income housing options don’t allow pets or may have additional fees associated with animals. If the person does find a job, they might struggle with where to leave their pet during working hours and even worry that the animal could be taken if they leave them in a tent or homeless camp. All of this uncertainty doesn’t only impact the homeless person, but it can also cause dogs to struggle with anxiety symptoms when their home environment changes frequently.
Living homeless with a dog comes with potential hazards and worries. If you don’t have access to clean water, your pet might be drinking from puddles that are filled with parasites and bacteria. Healthy food options are probably limited, meaning that you might be forced to feed your pet unclean food. If your animal becomes ill, you might also struggle to find free clinics and emergency vet care. Other hazards include ticks, fleas, and other critters, along with exposure to outdoor weather extremes.
Be Part of the Solution
Most people don’t wake up one day and decide to become homeless. Tragic life occurrences often force people out of their homes and onto the streets. When you live through these types of traumatic events, leaving behind a beloved pet can seem horrible. If your heart goes out to people living homeless with pets, you can help in several ways to ease their burdens and give them another night together.
Devin Morrissey is a freelance writer from Daly City, CA. He writes about small business marketing and SEO. On his downtime, he enjoys experimenting with car modifications and collecting vinyl records. He also enjoys hiking and downtime with his dog, Scrummy. If you want to contact Devin, message him at his (rarely used!) Twitter account: @DevMorrissey