Being homeless means having few places to turn for comfort. That makes the companionship of a pet crucial to someone living on the street. Unfortunately, while dogs and cats offer company and warmth on a cold night, they also come with a huge obstacle for the homeless. That's because most shelters won't accept people with animals. So if a pet owner wants a bed for the night they have to leave their animals behind.
Given that option, most homeless people will forgo shelter in order to stay with their pets. But that means those people are also deprived of other services, such as medical care, showers, clean clothes and hot food.
So how many homeless people have pets? One estimate is that 5-10% of homeless people had either a dog or cat. That’s according to a 2009 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless. In some cities it reached as high as 24%
Many people disapprove of the idea that the homeless would have pets to begin with. They say the homeless have enough difficulty taking care of themselves and have no business taking responsibility for the wellbeing of pet. But a University of Colorado sociologist says this is a common misconception. Professor Leslie Irving says many of the homeless go to great lengths to care for their pets, and are often willing to go hungry themselves so that their pets can be fed. "Dogs, of course, need food, medical care and shelter from the elements, but they don't need a house. What they need most is human companionship, and they often get that more from homeless people than from those who own houses," say Irving.
Furthermore, as anyone who has pets will tell you they may have no problem delaying trips to the doctor for themselves, but would rush to the vet at the first sign of illness in their pet.
Karen Hamza knows how important pets are to the homeless. She used to be homeless with just a cat for company. “People say ‘why don’t you take the animals away from the homeless?’. You never want to do that. You never want to even go there. I don’t even think about that.”
Now she is the founder of Angel Hanz for the Homeless, a non-profit that provides supplies and vet services to pets owned by homeless people. “I bring everything to the table, to keep the animals and the homeless together … We help keep the animals out of the killing shelters and we keep the homeless supplied with whatever they need -- resources, human food, backpacks, clothing, blankets, everything that they need. We make sure the cats and the dogs have plenty of food.”
There is another reason homeless people want to have a dog: safety. Living on the streets can be dangerous, especially for women and the disabled who are at high risk for harassment, abuse and theft.
And any pet can help those homeless afflicted with mental illness, such as PTSD. Pets provide proven therapeutic benefits to the people who can't afford mental health counseling or care.
Mark Horvath runs invisiblepeople.tv, a website that chronicles the stories of current and former homeless people. One man he spoke with, named Mike, has been living on the streets of Los Angeles for the past thirteen years. Mike says people think that since he is homeless his dog must be malnourished. “It’s like, you know, if someone is dire in straits with their kids, they call it ‘hard times,’ if someone is in dire straits with their dogs, they call it ‘malneglect’ and ‘abuse’. I don’t understand it… We know how to take care of our animals.”
"Mike" talks to Mark Horvath of InvisiblePeopleTV about being homeless with a pet.
And as Hamza says, “The animal gives that homeless person a reason to live. It gives them something to be responsible for. When you’re responsible for an animal, you have to be there. It keeps them moving forward. It keeps them going in their lives.”