Homeless pet owners – good or bad for animal welfare?
By Elsie Lodde
For the last 2.5 years, I have been helping to transport animals for The Mercer Clinic for the Homeless, a free clinic run out of Loaves and Fishes by UCD School of Veterinary Medicine. I can tell you, this is not always easy for me (and overscheduled animal lover) for a plethora of reasons, but I can tell you it is never because the participants do not care for their dogs. I deal with people wanting to dump their pets all the time, their untrained and unsocialized animals that have been living alone in their backyards. Those animals are very different from the ones I encounter. Many of the homeless animals I take are anxious, they are not used to being in a car, or inside and they do not know what it is like to be away from their humans. Their humans are their family, and they don’t care that they live outside, because they have constant love and devotion- and we know that is all any dog wants. Doing this work, and also just knowing and helping lots of homeless people in the community, I have learned to appreciate the bond between homeless people and their pets even more.
I grew up the daughter of a woman who had great compassion for animals and homeless people. Of course, she had a lot of the same problems the homeless people did, but always managed to have a boyfriend to provide a roof over her head. She would often give her food, or what money she had, to homeless people and there was one woman she would bring home and let her shower and take a nap while she washed her clothes. Growing up this way, it is impossible to ignore homeless people. Many people dehumanize them because they are hard to look at. We are sad for them, we want them to do better- to be better. I know these are humans, with their own stories and histories. But we must remember that they are humans. They deserve eye contact and even conversation. Working at Shriners Hospital for Children, we see service animals whose main service they provide is getting people to talk to children. Just like we ignore homeless people, handicapped people often get overlooked and ignored rather than treated normally. Since people are drawn to animals, it helps to get strangers to talk to handicapped children, just as homeless people with animals tend to get more human interaction.
One day I saw a man pushing a shopping cart with 3 chihuahuas down the street, he had a sign that said “not for sale” and another medium breed dog in tow. I pulled over and was quite intrigued by him. I took time to learn more about this man, who was super defensive about his animals at first but started to open up to me. Mark was a Vietnam Veteran who is like many homeless people- battles mental/addiction issues. He told me “if it weren’t for them, I would be in jail” and that he works to be sober so he can care for them. He cannot get into trouble because they will take his pets away. He had a tiny Chihuahua puppy, I asked about her and we built a relationship. I met with him several times to give his puppy vaccines and provide quality dog food for his older dog who had some skin issues. Eventually he trusted me enough to listen to me when I told him that breeding that Chihuahua puppy was a bad idea and allowed me to spay her. He met a woman and they ended up in a tiny trailer in a rundown trailer park, and his dogs were so loved.
Another woman I work with regularly I always saw (as she was friends with a man with two dogs I give a lot of attention to) and one day she ended up with a puppy when another homeless couple’s dogs had babies. She named the blonde boy Heavy and he has grown up with her on the streets. For her, also a veteran and one of the ones I really wonder why they are homeless as she seems to not have any of the normal issues faced by homeless, Heavy is not only her baby but her protector. One night while sleeping someone tried to steal her cell phone, and Heavy bit that man and chased him off. Dealing in a world where her friends are all addicts and mentally unstable- Heavy is her one source of simplicity. He just loves and protects her, and she will just cradle this big 70 pound dog in her arms like he is anything other than what his name suggests.
Sometimes my biggest obstacles to helping these people, is other people who think they are helping by stealing their animals. This causes a huge distrust in the population. I give them my card and try to make them understand that I am not going to run off with their fur kids. That when I take them to be spayed/neutered, that I will bring them back. One thing I have learned in doing rescue is how many people think that they are “saving” a dog by stealing it. When in fact, stealing their animals is simply just breaking the law and the person usually goes out and gets another dog. The often quick replacement of stolen dogs goes for both dogs ignored in the backyard or the cherished pet of a transient person. For some reason, people justify their thefts, not realizing how the owners make no changes in doing this- ignorant “rescuers” make it hard for us all the time. Randy had a Chihuahua and a drinking problem. After a few encounters, I talked him into allowing me to make an appointment to get his Chihuahua spayed, and one morning I woke him up and that was to be the day. What a mess of a day, first she peed in my lap which was pretty much anything but cool (both in temperature and emotion). Had a pair of pajama jeans in the car but nothing like urine soaked underwear, especially when it is not your pee! Randy called me several times, making sure everything was ok- someone told him she was going to take his mastiff to be fixed and he never heard from them again. When I picked up Sheba (the tan Chihuahua) at the clinic she was still completely out of it. This worried me and I really wanted her to stay the night in a home where she could be watched. Randy’s distrust (and the fact that he was now drunk) means that was not going to happen. I was super frustrated, but she was his dog so I had to leave the drugged Chihuahua with the drunk homeless person and it was so hard to do! I was truly concerned that something would happen to her, but luckily, Sheba recovered just fine.
So while the companion animals of homeless people may not always have a roof over their heads, the largest concern for their well being involves the sobriety of their owner- although this is not an issue only for this population- there are many benefits to assisting the homeless population in being able to keep their animals. This benefits the animals, homeless people and the community. In research that was done it was found that, “homeless people valued having animals because of companionship, a sense of responsibility, emotional well being and the increased social activity involved with caring for a pet” (Slatter, Loyd, King, 2012). This is why we should be supporting organizations such as The Mercer Clinic for the Homeless and Veterinary Street Outreach Service in San Francisco.
How you can help homeless people and their companion animals
Food – many homeless people have plenty of dog food but not food for them to eat (as people are more likely to donate dog food. Assisting them both is great! I carry reusable totes with a 2 gallon bag of dog food, socks, bottles of water, personal hygiene items and food that is more nutrition dense (like nuts, protein bars, trail mix etc). Gift cards for fast food restaurants are helpful as well.
Don’t Judge- Learn their names, and get to know them. That way you may be able to help them get the services they need! We don’t need more animals in our animal shelter so fostering the best bond between them is ideal.
Volunteer- help transport animals to clinics, spread the word about services that are available, foster dogs who might need a few extra days to heal up (especially when it is rainy). Collect items to make up bags to be distributed. Drop off care items at the centers that provide assistance to the homeless (In Sacramento there is Loaves and Fishes and Wind Youth Services for example).
Get involved- if you can afford to help, perhaps you can afford to help pay for services for homeless people’s companion animals to get spayed/neutered. If not, get involved in other ways! You can collect items and volunteer to donate at organizations such as Operation Puppy Pack to distribute supplies to the homeless.