For many pet owners, one of the worst sights to see is a homeless person asking for food or money with a dog in tow. Indeed, pet parents can be very vocal on this subject, ranging from utter disgust to complete sympathy. While some people understand that a pet can be a lifeline for a person, regardless of housing situation, others wonder whether the homeless can adequately provide all the necessities a pet requires.
In a 2013 article published by Dr. Mark Bekhoff in Psychology Today, Dr. Bekhoff asserts that 5 – 10% of homeless people have pets. For many homeless citizens, dogs provide a number of benefits including protection, companionship, loyalty, and, most importantly, the will to live. Numerous groups in Australia have recognized the utility that pets have in the lives of the homeless, and have begun to advocate for better treatment of this demographic, including space in shelters for kennels. Some soup kitchens have even become temporary sites for wellness and vaccine clinics, where homeless can get necessary preventative care for their pets, as well as food.
The reasons for homelessness are diverse. Some people, particularly women, may be escaping an abusive situation. Others may be down on their luck, having lost a job. For some, mental illness or disability may be the driving force for living on the streets. In many instances, homeless people were pet owners long before they were forced into vagrancy.
Unfortunately, many people remain homeless because there are few free or low-cost housing options that allow pets. For a woman wishing to escape abuse, the fear of leaving behind a beloved pet at the hands of an abuser can cause her to stay in a bad situation. Few women’s shelters allow animals, so the woman is faced with the decision of living with the abuser, living on the (dangerous) streets with the pet, or relinquishing the animal and moving to a shelter. For many pet parents, this decision can be impossible to make.
To address situations such as that of the abused woman, organizations, including the RSPCA of New South Wales and Pets of the Homeless Sydney are creating programs to help people care for their animals while finding appropriate housing. In Dr. Leslie Irvine’s book My Dog Always Eats First, she documents the struggles that homeless pet owners face and the fact that many go hungry so that their dogs can eat. Although pet ownership can ultimately act as the catalyst for escaping homelessness, in the interim, these advocacy groups would like to help.
The RSPCA’s program, “Living Ruff,” distributes pet food to the homeless, and also helps secure emergency boarding and veterinary care for people and pets in need. Pets of the Homeless Sydney provides the resources necessary for homeless shelters to provide kennels for homeless pet owners, with their program titled “The Kennel Project.” Both organizations accept donations of food, preventatives, and wormers.
Ultimately, homeless pet owners should no longer be stigmatized, but rather looked at as human beings that share an undeniable commonality: an ultimate love for our animals that cannot be broken, regardless of living situation. By supplying homeless pet parents with the help they need, dog – and owner – can be back on their feet and off the streets, living the life every human and animal deserves.