No Place to Lay Your Bones?

Research shows that up to 24% of people without homes have companion animals.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Having a pet can be time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, but it can be especially difficult for people without a home. Pet guardianship can be expensive and, although some states provide food stamps for pet food, most states do not. People with limited incomes often report that they will feed their pets before feeding themselves. Their pets are not allowed in medical facilities, stores, or public transportation which limits their access to critical needs. Unless a person has access to a support network, they may forgo urgent medical care if they have nobody to watch their pet while they are away. Although pet ownership appears to be detrimental to the well-being of people without homes, there is a multitude of benefits that outweigh the cost of pet ownership. This article will examine why we need more resources for undomiciled people with pets.  

Photo by João Victor Xavier on Unsplash
Source: Photo by João Victor Xavier on Unsplash

Benefits of Pet Guardianship for the Homeless

Research has established that there is a myriad of benefits included in pet guardianship, including lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as lowered symptoms of anxiety. For those without a home, there may be additional benefits. In 2015, Hutton found that pets provide a steady source of companionship and support for undomiciled people. Pet guardianship helps alleviate social isolation, stigma and may even prevent depression. It is not surprising that homeless people with pets report higher levels of attachment to their pets than the general population (Irvine, 2016). Undomiciled people reported feeling that their pets provide them with a more structured day and a sense of purpose. They often feel stigmatized by society but view their pets as a non-judgmental source of support. Many people report that the connection to their pet is the only consistent relationship that they have in their lives. Their pets are often described as family members, companions, or protectors. Some people report that the bond between them and their pet is so strong that their primary purpose in life is to preserve that bond (Cronley, Strand, Patterson & Gwaltney, 2009).

Pets are also considered as vehicles of redemption and encourage a sense of responsibility in their person. In order to care for their pet, a person may change their behavior in order to accommodate their pet’s needs. Pet guardianship may reduce criminal activity, since the person is less likely to risk going to jail if they know they will lose their pet. The dependence of the animal on the person may allow the person to see themselves as a “good” person, in a world that often stigmatizes and marginalizes them. Fulfilling the goal of becoming a good caretaker may involve a sacrifice on the part of the person, such as giving up drugs and alcohol, or deciding to live in their car. These animals are also witnesses to the person’s trauma narrative, and may provide people with a strong sense of self-worth. This bond may be so strong as to alleviate loneliness and depression and to prevent suicidality (Compitus, 2019). Pets may provide people with a physical sense of security, which is especially important for undomiciled women, many of whom are homeless as a result of fleeing a batterer in a domestic violence situation. In fact, homeless shelters are notoriously unsafe and people with pets may be more likely to use the shelters if they are allowed to bring their pets with them. 

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Limitations of Pet Guardianship

Although there are numerous benefits to pet guardianship for the homeless, there are many aspects of homelessness that may make it difficult to keep a pet. It is important to note that although research shows that few people have lost their housing due to pets, having a pet may be a significant barrier to establish new housing (Baker, 2001). A large number of people have been denied housing due to pet guardianship and those who relinquish their pet often report trauma-like symptoms.  

Pets may limit access to other services. They are not usually allowed in private buildings, so people with pets may not be able to enter a soup kitchen to get a meal, or a shelter to take a shower. They may not have a support network of people who can care for their pet while they are inside, so they must decide between the safety of their beloved pet and their own personal needs. Studies show that those who are homeless with pets are more likely to suffer from panic attacks than those without pets (Baker, 2001). This may be due to a constant fear that their pets, their primary source of support, could be taken away from them forever by well-meaning strangers. 

Animal Welfare 

To bystanders, it may appear that if a homeless person is unable to care for their own needs, they will be unable to care for their pets. However, research shows that most pets of the undomiciled are in relatively good health (Irvine, 2016). Since studies reflect that many homeless people see their pets as dependants, they may provide for the pets’ medical and dietary needs first, even if that means that they will go hungry. Pet shelters are overcrowded and many healthy animals are euthanized due to space restrictions. The undomiciled report feeling a sense of worth and redemption in saving a pet that may otherwise be killed by an unfair system. In fact, some homeless people report that the pets of people with housing are neglected by long hours home alone, while their pets are their constant companions. This is a healthy source of support for both the people and their pets, despite living in less than traditional locations.

Photo by Clément Falize on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Clément Falize on Unsplash

Conclusion

Homelessness is one of the most stigmatized conditions in the modern world and those with pets are often subjected to more judgment by strangers. The rights of the undomiciled are often overlooked in general and the needs of homeless people with pets are greatly neglected. There are very few shelters in the world that provide housing for people with pets and there are even fewer resources to help them get access to food, medical care or special housing. Basic human rights include the right to shelter, food and medical care, although homeless people with pets are often denied these basic rights. Most homeless people with pets (93%) reported that they would not move into housing without their pets and yet housing for people with pets is limited (Singer, Hart, & Zasloff, 1995). In recognition of these barriers to service, organizations could change policies to allow for special accommodations for homeless people with pets, such as contracting with local rescue groups to care for a pet while a person is receiving services. On a macro level, laws could be drafted to help those who care for pets access services more easily. If pet guardianship is regarded as a basic right, not a privilege, it may provide people with a stronger sense of control in an often unpredictable world. Nobody should have to pick between their primary source of emotional support, their beloved pet, and their next meal.  

Please note that the estimated number of homeless people with pets is likely even higher than that which Irving (2016) reported. This is because many undomiciled (homeless) people with pets worry that their pet will be removed from their care.

References

Baker, O. (2001). A dog’s life: Homeless people and their pets. Oxford: Blue Cross

Compitus, K. (2019). Traumatic pet loss and the integration of attachment-based animal assisted therapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(2), 119.

Cronley, C., Strand, E. B., Patterson, D. A., & Gwaltney, S. (2009). Homeless people who are animal caretakers: a comparative study. Psychological reports, 105(2), 481-499.

Hutton, V. E. (2015). Social provisions of the human-animal relationship amongst people living with HIV in Australia. Anthrozoös, 28(2), 199-214.

Irvine, L., & Cilia, L. (2016). The Value of Pets to Public and Private Health and Well-Being. Retrieved from https://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=humcarel

Singer, R. S., Hart, L. A., & Zasloff, R. L. (1995). Dilemmas associated with rehousing homeless people who have companion animals. Psychological reports, 77(3), 851-857.