Why do homeless people have pets?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
November 07, 2014
Categories: Ask the Hub

There are many positive effects associated with pet ownership, including improved physical and mental health, as shown in J. Sherpell’s study. As such, many people in North America consider pets an extension of family—some would argue that a home just isn’t a home without animals. (I have two cats and a dog, and definitely fall under this category.)

People experiencing homelessness are no different, and a significant number of them have pets. According to communications cited in Michelle Lem’s thesis, Effects of Pet Ownership on Street-Involved Youth in Ontario, a study of vulnerably housed adults in Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver found that 11.5% of participants owned pets; similarly, a 2009 criminalization survey found that of one sample of homeless youth in Toronto, 12.8% owned pets. According to Rhoades, Winetrobe and Rice, this number could be as high as 25% in the United States. 

Many people cannot bear to give up pets they adopted while housed—remember that most homelessness in Canada is short-term—while others acquire pets while already homeless. In either case, pets are generally kept because people can’t imagine life without them. As Andrew Johnston said about his dog Smokey in a Toronto Star story on dogs and the homeless: “She’s the only thing I got in this world besides my life, and my life ain’t going anywhere…I’m there for her and she’s there for me.”

While there is limited research in this area, the studies that have been done all highlight the following as reasons why homeless people have pets.

Love and companionship

Companion animals, as explored in Paws for Thought and this UK study, are often more than just pets. For many people, especially those experiencing homelessness—whose social networks are usually extremely limited as a result of their homelessness—bonding with an animal is a great source of love and companionship. In one study of homeless adults in California, 74% of pet owners said that their pet was their only source of companionship and love.

Similarly, a study of homeless women living in shelters in 6 Canadian cities by Labrecque and Walsh found that nearly half of participants cited attachment as the primary reason for owning a pet. Participants also identified: the unconditional acceptance due to the non-judgemental nature of pets (39%); and a source of comfort (51%) as other important reasons to own a pet. Of these women, 82% reported feeling loss after having to surrender their pets in order to stay in shelters.

Studies with homeless youth also show the significance of love and companionship. In Harmony, Winetrobe and Rice’s study of 398 homeless youth in LA, 23% of participants had pets, over half of which were dogs. Love and companionship were common themes for participants, with 84.5% reporting: “my pet keeps me company” and 79.3% with “my pet makes me feel loved.” Love is a two-way street, even with animals: 70.7% reported: “my pet gives me someone to love.”

In her thesis, Michelle Lem found “a universally high level of pet attachment among this unique pet owning population [homeless youth], providing opportunity for youth to experience not only beneficial emotional and social support, but also the negative emotional consequences of pet loss.” She also found that youth with pets reported lower rates of depression.

Homeless man on street with dog

Sense of purpose, responsibility and accountability

Owning a pet comes with great responsibility and this isn’t lost on homeless owners. 28% of the homeless women in Labrecque and Walsh’s study mentioned this during their interviews.

This sense of purpose, responsibility and accountability from animal companionship can be transformative in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. One of the most compelling studies in this area is Leslie Irvine’s Animals as Lifechangers and Lifesavers: Pets in the Redemption Narratives of Homeless People. She interviewed homeless people in Boulder, CO and San Francisco, CA who were visiting street vet clinics and asked about their pets, resulting in very moving stories.

Several people said their pets helped them manage their addictions. Tommy adopted a stray dog named Monty after his release from jail. He’d stopped using alcohol and drugs by necessity, but said it was having Monty around after tthat helped him stay clean. Another interviewee, Donna, had a similar story with her adopted dog Athena, who she credits for her sobriety.

In many stories, love, companionship and responsibility are all common reasons why homeless people kept their pets. Denise told Irvine about her cat Ivy, who lived with her in her car at the time: “She’s the reason why I keep going, because I made a commitment to take care of her when I adopted her. So she needs me, and I need her. She is the only source of daily, steady affection and companionship that I have.”

All these reasons aside, keeping a pet while homeless has a few challenges.

The challenges of pet ownership while homeless

Housing

Having a furry friend often prevents people from staying in shelters. In Toronto, where the homeless population is largest, there is only one that welcomes dogs and cats: Bethlehem United Shelter operated by Fred Victor.

In her thesis, Lem found only six openly pet-friendly shelters, but notes that there may be more, writing: “Given that some services may choose not to advertise as being pet-friendly and that no comprehensive list of pet-friendly agencies exists, it is difficult to assess the accessibility of services…”

As a result, many people experiencing homelessness face a difficult decision: stay on the streets with their pets, or surrender the animals so they can stay in a shelter. Clearly, establishing more shelters with pet-friendly policies would alleviate the sense of loss from losing a pet, get more people off the streets, and avoid contributing to already overcrowded animal shelters.

Costs of food and care

Between buying food and providing veterinary care, owning pets isn’t cheap. In Aline Kidd and Robert M. Kidd’s study of 105 homeless adults, 55% of participants said vet care was an issue, and 44% had located a free clinic. Though inconsistently implemented and not always available, street clinics organized by groups like Community Veterinary Outreach are important in maintaining the health of pets with homeless, vulnerably housed and/or low-income owners.

Getting pet food was also an issue, according to the same study. 58% admitted that feeding their pets was often difficult, but they found ways to do so: 9 people gave their pets their own food or used it to supplement their pet’s; while the other 12 said they always fed their pet first.

For other homeless pet owners, providing food is less of an issue. In Irvine, Welsh and Kahl’s study, Confrontations and Donations: Encounters Between Homeless Pet Owners and the Public, many participants said that they incorporate pet food into their budget. Food was also reported as being frequently donated by passers-by, pet stores and animal organizations.

Redefining “good” pet ownership

In addition to these challenges, homeless pet owners face a lot of stigma. As Irvine, Walsh and Kahl point out: homeless people are often criticized and attacked for having pets. Strangers offer to buy the animals, or threaten to call animal control organizations. As a result, homeless pet owners constantly “redefine pet ownership to incorporate how they provide for their animals, challenging definitions that require a physical home.” 

James, one participant in Boulder, pointed out that housed pet owners are not examined in the same way homeless ones are:

“Certain people should not own animals, OK? I totally agree that there are some people on the streets…there’s no way they can take care of a dog… But it goes the same way with people that got houses and jobs. You ain’t got the time to spend with the animal, ’cause you’re so busy at work trying to keep that house that you have and pay your car payments, that your dog is neglected and doesn’t see you but when you come home, and when you come home, you just want to eat and go to bed. That dog—that’s mistreatment, too.”

Another participant in San Francisco, Kaz, redefined pet ownership by telling researchers how much time he spends with his dogs:

“They tell me that ‘You can’t take care of a dog on the street,’ and I tell them that they’re crazy, because I spend 24/7 with my dogs. My dogs don’t leave my hip. They eat way more than I do. They eat before I do. They get plenty of water. Plenty of food. They get way lot of attention. They get 24/7 attention. I go to parks with them. They get to run around and have fun. They get to see new things every day and they’re exploring nature like they were meant for.”

People experiencing homelessness keep pets for all the same reasons housed people do: love, companionship, and a sense of purpose. In many cases, they find ways to provide beyond adequate care for their companion animals. 

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: mattwi1s0n on Flickr

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

Comments

John Baglow
9:33 AM 07/11/2014

I've been struck by the health of homeless people's dogs. I've seldom if ever seen a poorly maintained animal accompanying a homeless person.

But I think the real reason for keeping these dogs is simpler than suggested. It's a matter of survival. Sleeping rough carries with it all sorts of immediate risks: robbery and assault, for example. Dogs provide a measure of security, if only to wake and warn the owner.

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