How do you choose between shelter and a best friend? This is the impossible decision pet-lovers face when losing their homes. Since most shelters don’t allow animals, homeless people with pets often elect to stay on the streets rather than part with their four-legged companion… a decision that can be dangerous when the elements become harsh.
Indeed, pets can be a key reason that homeless people choose living on the streets over shelters. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between five and ten percent of homeless people have an animal companion (although this has never been formally surveyed). Yet, only two (yes, just 2!) pet-friendly homeless shelters exist in the United States (in Florida and California).
The benefits of having a pet are significant, particularly for homeless people. Pets are non-judgmental and loyal, almost to a fault. They may serve as additional security and protection on the dangerous streets. And studies show that they contribute to the healing process for people with mental or physical illness. According to one expert:
In this very busy twentieth century, man is a lonely creature. There are too many alienated individuals who lack human companionship. They lack purpose and productivity. A simple addition to these lonely lives can sometimes accomplish major changes. The possession of a pet, who eagerly awaits one and responds to one’s care and attention, may mean the difference between maintaining contact with reality or almost total withdrawal into fantasy. Literally, a pet can occasionally represent the difference between life and death.
One organization, Feeding Pets of the Homeless, takes a different approach to this issue. Their take? “Pets of the homeless and disadvantaged do not choose their owners.” To ensure that pets of the homeless receive care and nourishment, they have established a coalition of food banks and veterinarians specifically for pets of the homeless. (Find out if your community is connected.)
Certainly, it’s important to ensure that the pets of homeless people receive adequate care. However, it is even more crucial to recognize that four-legged companions are a key part of a homeless person’s life, but may also create an impermeable barrier for the delivery of life-saving services to homeless people.
Sadly, it is unlikely that more pet-friendly shelters will materialize in the near future, given that many organizations are already struggling to meet the needs of homeless humans (although, Vancouver, BC is the proud new owner of such a shelter).
[Picture: Homeless man with dog from Feeding Pets of the Homeless.]