The Co-Occurrence of Homelessness in People and their Companion Animals
After years of enduring harassment and exposure to the elements, a woman named Heidi finally attained a stable living situation through a subsidized housing program for the chronically homeless. In the far northeast corner of Pittsburgh, Heidi was offered a permanent apartment of her own where she could find respite from the extreme conditions of living outside and tend to her mental and physical health needs which had long been neglected. Nearly as soon as Heidi moved in, she took in a cat named Sam which she had befriended on the streets of downtown while she was homeless. Prior to being housed, Heidi and Sam would often cuddle and sleep together on a warm street vent or dig through the trash together in the back alleys of restaurants for scraps of food. Sam also provided comfort and company in Heidi’s new situation, which, although good, was sudden, unusual, and sometimes stressful. Luckily, Heidi’s case management team understood the importance of their relationship and looked the other way despite the no pets rule. In this case, Heidi did not have to choose between shelter and a best friend--a devastating ultimatum that so many other homeless individuals and families are faced with.
Unfortunately, animals are rarely seen as a legitimate part of the family unit and are denied access to emergency services, which can put all individuals at risk for new or continued homelessness.
Although they are presented with unique challenges in caring for their companion animals and themselves, homeless pet guardians are very attached and often choose their animals over services. In a 1995 study surveying the chronically homeless population with companion animals, 93% of men and 96% of women stated that housing would not be acceptable if pets were not allowed, and a majority of the study participants reported being refused housing because they had pets. Knowing that keeping Sam in her life may have jeopardized this housing opportunity, Heidi kept Sam a secret throughout the intake process. In fact, the case management team did not find out about Sam’s co-habitation until Heidi was well into her sixth month in her new apartment. Thanks to Heidi’s wile, the pair avoided separation, overcame service obstacles, and crafted a solution to a daunting decision no one should ever have to confront.
A qualitative study of 32 homeless adolescents further confirms the importance of keeping the human-animal bond in tact. Throughout interviews, there was a recurrent theme of the youth coping with the stresses of homelessness through their companion animals. The youth associated their pets with unconditional love, reduced feelings of loneliness, and improved health. While the study’s conclusions recognized the therapeutic value of companion animals and suggested the development and exploration of interventions that exploit this relationship, the explicit connection to domestic violence as one of the leading causes of homelessness for women and children was not drawn in the interpretation of findings. Domestic violence services that include companion animals as a part of the family unit may be an intervention that can reduce the incidence of homelessness altogether.
A collaboration between the College of Social Work and College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee produced a comparative study in 2009 that identified first-time homeless, Euro-American women that were without housing due to domestic violence were the most likely to be caring for animals. This suggests that increasing the inclusion of animals in domestic violence programs may prevent homelessness as a result of family or intimate partner violence. The American Humane Association, an organization dedicated to the protection of animals and children, recognized the gap in awareness and correlating services and created the Pets and Women’s Shelter Program (PAWS), which launched nationally in 2008 to advocate for on-site housing of pets at family violence shelters. The handful of family violence shelters that are known to accept companion animals are listed on the Pets of the Homeless website, along with other pet friendly homeless shelters. The resource list can be found at here.
Pets of the Homeless, also known as Feeding Pets of the Homeless, is one of a few organizations that have sprung up recently to address the difficulty of providing for a companion animal while homeless and the added challenge of finding services for a human-animal pair. Their mission to “reduce hunger in pets belonging to the homeless and the less fortunate and provide veterinary care for those pets” became all the more significant when the market went sour just after it was initiated. Unfortunately, the economic downturn created hardships that affected more than the two-legged hominids that created it. Foreclosure pets (or recession pets), a recently coined term by the animal welfare world, describes the companion animals thrust into homelessness with their human counterparts within recent years. According to Save Our Pets Food Bank located in Atlanta, they opened with the hopes of the eventual restoration of the financial system and no longer being needed a few years down the line. But quite the reverse ended up being true. It seems the number of animals surrendered or abandoned due to the challenge of feeding them while money is tight has been climbing, along with the rate of euthanasia as a result of the limited capacity of shelters and rescues to take in and care for all of the animals.
Although the situation seems formidable, cases like Heidi and Sam’s remind us to be hopeful. More than once, Heidi and Sam were benefactors of generous donations of both human and cat food from kind locals. On a cold night in Pittsburgh, a cup of warm soup and a steaming tin of microwaved cat chow seemed like a life saver. And despite the fact that they faced significant challenges in navigating the system, Heidi and Sam now live warmly and safely in a one bedroom apartment together with a supportive service team that ‘gets it.‘ We can do more than hope that there is a similar future in store for the uncounted thousands of homeless people and companion animals who sleep on the streets together. Monetary or volunteer support for existing organizations (food banks, veterinary clinics, and advocacy organizations) that serve homeless companion animals and humans, starting your own grassroots effort to fill the gap in services (tips for starting your own pet food bank can be found on Save Our Pets Food Bank’s website), or making individual contributions of food and care to the homeless in your community are all steps you can take to building a more secure situation for the human and non-human homeless.
**Elements of Heidi and Sam’s story have been changed to protect their identities and honor confidentiality according to HIPAA regulations.
For further reading click here: http://mydogismyhome.com/
Also see this website on how and where you can help, and where you can GET help: http://www.petsofthehomeless.org/collection-sites?r=California
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