Pets and Homelessness
September 22, 2020The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 10% of the total population of people experiencing homelessness have a pet that they care for.
It’s not uncommon to see people experiencing homelessness accompanied by a pet. In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 10% of the total population of people experiencing homelessness have a pet that they care for. Other groups, especially social service providers, estimate that as many as 25% of all people experiencing homelessness care for a pet.
Given the hardships that people experiencing homelessness face, some might ask: “Shouldn’t people experiencing homelessness give up their pets? Wouldn’t life be easier for both the person experiencing homelessness and their pets?”
Indeed, pets contribute an additional level of responsibility in the lives of people facing homelessness — and in many cases, pets can create additional pain points in everyday life for this population. Some of these pain points include:
Inability to Access Shelter: According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 1 in 5 people experiencing homelessness don’t accept shelter because their pet can’t join them. Many congregate shelters prohibit pets, making it incredibly challenging for people experiencing homelessness with a pet to find a warm place to sleep at night. According to a study by Seattle University’s School of Law, “no-pet policies perpetuate homelessness by excluding and limiting access to necessary housing, shelter, and services.” Pallet’s personal shelters, on the other hand, provide their residents with a private space where they can reside with their pets. In some locations, Pallet shelter communities even have a dog run for residents and their pets.
Difficulty Accessing Services: If someone facing homelessness is able to find a pet-friendly congregate shelter, what options do they have for pet care while they access the services they need to reintegrate into society? How can someone access job training, mental health services, and other needs without a safe place to leave their pet? Unfortunately, their options are few, creating another barrier between their current situation and reintegration into society and permanent housing.
Strain on Limited Resources: For people who can sometimes barely find food for themselves, pets add an additional challenge as their owners search for funds or donations to acquire pet food.
Public and Law Enforcement Criticism: People experiencing homelessness who keep pets are disproportionately impacted by the reporting and enforcement of animal control laws. According to a study by Seattle University, “up to 90 percent of people experiencing homelessness report being harassed or witnessing harassment by the police for owning a pet.” Callers from the general public cite concerns for animal safety or potential animal abuse as they alert law enforcement or animal control of people who keep pets while experiencing homelessness.
Given these pain points, why would someone experiencing homelessness take on the burden of pet ownership? In addition to the list of pain points that this population experiences, pet ownership provides an equally long list of benefits which may outweigh the challenges associated with keeping a pet. Some of these benefits include:
Relationship: For many people experiencing homelessness, their dog is the only source of unconditional love that they’ve ever received. How could someone give up their companion, who unconditionally stays by their side when so many others in their life have left?
Responsibility: Pets offer a sense of responsibility and purpose for people experiencing homelessness, and can positively influence the decisions these individuals make. For example, a person struggling with drug addiction may consider the consequences of their addiction on their pet, and may subsequently make choices that reduce those consequences (such as avoiding drugs). Similarly, someone experiencing homelessness may aspire to find housing for the benefit of their pet.
The responsibility of caring for my pets keeps me alive sometimes.
– Ryan, Hillsboro
Social Interaction: People experiencing homelessness are often ignored by the general public, but their pet can enable social interaction as people interact with the dog or cat — sometimes the only human interaction a person experiencing homelessness may receive all day.
Protection and Safety: A full night of rest is vitally important for mental health and personal productivity during the day, but it’s difficult to sleep soundly on the sidewalk when you’re worried about someone stealing your belongings or harming you. Pets can act as both an alarm and deterrent to theft, alerting their owners of danger.
Ultimately, there is no data that points to widespread animal abuse or neglect on the part of people experiencing homelessness. In fact, the contrary seems to be true, with “social scientists, law enforcement, animal advocates, and pet owners experiencing homelessness asserting[ing] that pet owners take better care of their pets than they do themselves.” Given the number of animals who tragically are euthanized in shelters each year, and the care that people experiencing homelessness provide for their pets, it doesn’t make sense to separate individuals and their pets.
In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.
– Heather, Seattle
At Pallet, we build personal shelter that keeps people experiencing homelessness and their pets together, for the benefit of both the human and the pet. “Service providers and shelter organizers who [accommodate pets] report high success rates in helping clients transition off the street. Furthermore, the cost of making pet accommodations is relatively low. Shelters who house clients in individual or family rooms report that allowing pets has not created any additional costs, while shelters that created indoor or outdoor kennels spent a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on improvements.”
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