The vast majority of people who cross paths with a homeless person will not look twice. Between the two available options—ignoring or acknowledging—the former is easier, and so people do not question the alternative. Mark Horvath, founder of the vlog “Invisible People,” doesn’t sugar-coat the reality:
It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.
When a homeless person shares his or her company with an animal, however, everything changes. Suddenly they demand second glances, because there is a dog, cat, or other pet who is “suffering,” too. Many place blame on these individuals for subjecting an innocent animal to their hardships. The quote of the day becomes: “If they can’t take care of themselves, how can they take care of a pet?”
We have a hard time ignoring animals, no matter how much habit has taught us to look the other way. In a society where pets do not yet have the privileges of humans, it sometimes forms barriers between what people want to do and what they can do.
Pets of the Homeless is one non-profit organization dedicated to providing food, veterinary care, and lobbying efforts to convince homeless shelters to allow companion animals indoors with their humans. For those who share a deep love with their pets it should come as no surprise that when given the option, nearly all homeless people will choose to remain with their pet rather than accept the hot meal and a place to sleep if it means leaving them behind.
Gathering concrete figures for the number of homeless is impossible due the fluctuating nature of homelessness, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nearly 600,000 people are homeless in the United States on any given night. 5-10% have pets, and those numbers rise as high as 24% in some regions.
If the suspicions of many are true, that homeless people deserve what they have, and are selfish to be taking in dogs and cats when they themselves are struggling, then why do they keep them?
The answer is clear even if it’s hard to see, as anyone with a four-legged family member knows: They provide companionship, comfort, and loyalty. They also provide warmth and protection, and for many of these people, they might be the only reason anyone speaks to them on a given day.
In Danielle Wolffe’s article “8 Reasons Homeless People ‘Deserve’ To Have Dogs,” she mentions a couple of relevant points:
Finances don’t indicate who a person is, what they are capable of, how much love they deserve or where it should come from. Poverty is not a character trait. A struggling person deserves the same intimate connections as everyone else.
“More importantly,” she says, “having money doesn’t give us the right to make those decisions for others—doesn’t give us exclusive dominion over animals or children.”
Wolffe also claims that people who love their dogs, or any pet, will find a way to care for them, even if it means sacrificing whatever meager food or supplies they have.
As noted in this article from Mic, the pets themselves find a great deal of advantages sharing company with the homeless. They are taken off the streets, so to speak, and are often spared from abuse and euthanasia. For these dogs, their humans offer the only form of kindness they’ve ever experienced; the same can be said of the dogs for whom they provide care.
On the downside, the nutritional content and regularity of their food is not ideal. The dogs typically do not receive routine veterinary care, and it’s difficult for homeless individuals to collect enough money to even make a phone call to Pets of the Homeless for help.
Founder and president of the organization, Genevieve Frederick, puts the struggle into focus:
These people are crying, and they are desperate, because they have nothing. The one thing that they have left is suffering, and it’s heartbreaking.
We as a country are left with the ultimate dilemma—how, if the majority of homeless shelters providing social services do not allow pets, and if the majority of homeless people will not abandon their pets to receive the care provided, will we begin to remedy this problem effectively?
It triggers a sort of domino effect wherein we must solve the issue of homeless people and pets before we can truly help them. Pets of the Homeless even provides an incentive for homeless shelters to alter their policies.
Frederick told Mic:
For shelters that say yes, we will send that shelter free collapsible sleeping crates, so that these people can get in out of the cold, out of the heat, off the streets, for just a little bit. This keeps them in a secure place and keeps everybody safe.
If you happen to be one of thousands of individuals who simply look away from a man or woman seeming down on their luck, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. The same is true for those who disagree with the homeless owning pets, and that’s okay, too. We are human, after all.
The good news is that the same thing that makes us human in that manner also gives us the profound ability to empathize and understand, and that’s just what groups like Pets of the Homeless help us do. They and other organizations have brought this rather covert issue further out of the shadows, and for the first time the deplorable state of homelessness in the U.S. is beginning to get the attention it so desperately needs. If we begin to consider the pets who give these people as much love and enjoyment as they give us, we’re already one step ahead.
If you would like to donate to Pets of the Homeless, please visit their online donation page. Also, if you’d like to become a pet food provider, recruiter, or join the cause in a number of other ways, head on over to their website for help and suggestions. They can always use a helping paw.