July 24, 2019Blog

Homeless Youth With Pets Experience Unique Benefits and Challenges

Image Source: Pixabay

By Devin Morrissey

It’s not uncommon to see a homeless young person sitting outside with their dog next to them. Maybe it pulls your heartstrings a little more, maybe it makes you angry thinking about the conditions the dog is living in, or maybe it makes you wonder what got them there. For the younger homeless population, that pet may be the difference between an even harsher life on the streets and one with some love and companionship.

There are definitely some unique benefits to owning a pet while you’re homeless, and some added challenges. It’s important to understand the homeless issue as well as the positives and negatives of homeless pet ownership before judging the homeless youth too harshly for owning a pet while living on the street.

Understanding the Homeless Population

Statistics on homelessness cannot tell us more about the individual circumstances that affect people, but they do provide some context regarding the socioeconomic factors at play:

  • According to an estimate in January of 2017, there are around 553,742 people in the U.S. experiencing homelessness on a given night.
  • On a single night in the U.S. in 2018, 36,361 unaccompanied youth were counted as homeless — 89% were between 18 and 24 years old, and 11% were under the age of 18.
  • Of the children in foster care in the U.S., 1 in 5 will instantly become homeless upon hitting the age of 18.
  • Between 20-40% of the homeless youth, population in the U.S. identifies with the LGBTQ community.
  • Around 5-10% of the homeless population has a dog and/or cat. While pets can provide much-needed comfort to those who are without a home, they can incur additional costs and risks.

Being homeless is traumatic, hard on a person’s mental health, and can coincide with a lot of risk. For the younger homeless population, many have experienced violence or a home environment with drugs, which can often contribute to the reason behind their homelessness. Engaging in illegal activities, battling with addiction, and being a victim of sex trafficking are all real concerns for the homeless population, and there can be even more risks when you’re young.

Avoiding Risky Behavior

One study found that homeless youth populations with pets are less likely to engage in risky behavior like hard drug use. Not only can this be attributed to the mental health perks of owning a pet, it can also be attributed to pet owners avoiding any behavior that would take them away from their pet. Being incarcerated or under the influence can be hard on their pet, so many choose to avoid those risks when they can. With the homeless youth population having a lack of resources, support, and community, anything that can help them avoid risky behavior that can coincide with homelessness is paramount in their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Reducing Depression and Anxiety

Having a pet can do amazing things for a person’s mental health. The companionship and love that we get from our own animal, or even just being around an animal, can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine. Certain antidepressants like Trintellix come with the risk of a side effect called serotonin syndrome, which is caused by excess serotonin and can be extremely dangerous. The symptoms of serotonin syndrome include high body temperature, agitation, and muscle breakdown.

Pets offer a natural serotonin boost that won’t cause any side effects, which is also helpful since many homeless people don’t have access to these medications anyway. All of these factors contribute to reduced stress and anxiety as a pet owner. For the homeless youth population, that benefit cannot be overstated.

Isolation and a lack of companionship is a large concern in a highly traumatic situation like homelessness, and those who have a pet will feel that much less than those who don’t. For many young kids on the street, their pet is all they have, and the only relationship they’ve experienced that’s never been detrimental to them. With so many pets on the streets, in shelters, or being euthanized for space, it’s not hard to see how many pets can also benefit from the love of their owner — even if they are homeless.

Lacking Access to Services

Clearly there are benefits for the homeless youth population if they have a pet, but there are some challenges as well. For one, many shelters, treatment facilities, and resources for homeless people aren’t pet-friendly. This means that homeless people with a pet have fewer options for places to sleep as well as social services that may be able to help them. It can also be harder for them to keep a job or find a place to live when there’s the added challenge of keeping their pet safe while they work, and finding cheap housing that allows an animal. Pet-friendly shelters would help immensely, but with shelters already being so crowded, especially in colder months and in highly populated areas, it’s difficult to find a solution.

An Absence of Health Services

Another concern is the availability of healthcare for homeless populations, as well as health services for their pets. One major hurdle in safeguarding vulnerable populations like the homeless is in providing them with healthcare. Not only can a lack of healthcare access contribute to a person’s homelessness, it can also exacerbate it once they are living on the street. If a homeless person were to need hospitalization, or worse, as a result of their poor health, their pet would be shelter-bound.

Similarly, pets need regular access to veterinary care. While some institutions and cities offer care for homeless people and their pets, many others don’t. This can leave a homeless young person in a tough spot financially if they can’t care for their pet’s health needs. Many homeless people put their animal’s needs first and their own needs last, which can exacerbate their health problems.

Each person has their own story for what led them in the position to be homeless. For the homeless youth population, those stories are often heartbreaking. Natural disasters, toxic home environments, abandonment, and loss often accompany the story of homelessness. The story of each homeless animal, whether owned by a homeless person or not, is often just as heartbreaking. When a homeless person and a pet find each other, there are many challenges, but there can be some unique benefits as well. While the story isn’t ideal for either one, the alternative can be heartbreaking for both. This is why it’s important to see the entire picture behind the homeless youth population and their unique relationship with their pets.