A look at the relationship between homeless pet guardians and the animals they cherish
By Katie Marsico
For most Americans, it’s impossible not to be touched by the plight of the homeless. They brave social isolation, extreme temperatures, hunger, and a world that often walks by without an afterthought as they struggle to survive and be seen and heard. Occasionally, however, such individuals can at least claim the comfort of having a companion as they cope with the day-to-day chaos of the streets. Just like people in apartments, average houses, and luxury mansions, the homeless have pets, too, and just like other people, they reap the immeasurable rewards from guardianship. But what exactly are the challenges of caring for an animal in an environment where the future seems forever uncertain, where there’s no guarantee when the next meal will come, or whether there’ll be a safe place to sleep from one night to another? What is life like for pets of the homeless, and is it true that most guardians can’t afford to live without them?
Brenda Wilson and her Chocolate Labrador Retriever-Chow mix Rowdy were hit with the harsh realities of homelessness in September 2002. Eventually migrating from Amarillo, Texas, to Washington, D.C., Wilson made much of the journey on foot, pulling her beloved friend behind her in a Radio Flyer wagon. No matter where she went, she and Rowdy faced frequent discrimination, fear, and misunderstanding from security guards, prospective employers, and even other members of the homeless community. Though Rowdy was officially classified as an emotional service dog, many people argued with Wilson about the animal’s presence, with someone once going so far as to poison him. Yet as Wilson recounts, she refused to part with Rowdy, even if it meant spending more time on the streets and fighting that much harder for acceptance and fair treatment.
“Rowdy was my family,” she explains. “He was my gift from God. Being homeless exposes you to so much hatred and so much ugliness that it’s sometimes completely overwhelming. But I could be in a shelter with someone screaming an inch away from my face, and all I had to do was look down and see Rowdy staring back up at me with so much love in his eyes. That made all the difference in the world.” Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, based out of Washington, D.C., affirms Wilson’s description of the bleak, volatile circumstances that the homeless routinely endure, as well as the tremendous value that pet guardianship brings to these individuals.
“Becoming homeless is just about one of the worst things that can happen to a person,” Stoops says. “Having a pet provides companionship and sometimes even offers a reason for living. About 44 percent of the nation’s homeless are unsheltered. I would estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of that population have had a pet at some point during their homeless experience. Of that number, I would approximate that about 50 percent already had an animal when they became homeless.”
While these numbers may be indicative of the incredible emotional solace that homeless men and women receive from pet guardianship, they don’t answer some of the bigger questions. Namely, what everyday challenges do homeless people and their pets face, and how do the homeless cope with the myriad responsibilities of caring for an animal while struggling to get off the streets?
“I always made sure that Rowdy had what he needed,” Wilson says. Looking back, she remembers Christmas dinners the pair shared after she begged for food from cafeteria workers, as well as evenings they spent snuggled in freezing storage units or on the ground outside gas stations. Despite the fact that not everyone approved of or appreciated Rowdy’s presence, Wilson at least had the benefit of legally claiming Rowdy as a service dog and was therefore able to take him into the shelter system. Not all homeless people are so lucky, and many find themselves dealing with difficult decisions when confronted with housing options that aren’t always pet-friendly.
“Only a handful of shelters typically accept pets,” Stoops says. “That said, a large percentage of guardians would rather stay on the street than abandon their animals. This is not an ideal alternative, as living outside is both unhealthy and dangerous. Violence is a very real threat to the homeless, and their rights are limited. I’ve seen parents have their children taken away merely on account of being homeless, so there’s no guarantee when it comes to how authorities will treat these people’s pets.”
Genevieve Frederick, founder of Feeding Pets of the Homeless, concurs and adds that homeless pet guardians must also cope with challenges on a more basic level. “One of the dangers that comes with living on the streets is that pets do not get the proper diet and medical attention they need,” she says. “Without regular vaccinations, there is a big risk of spreading disease, and without spaying and neutering procedures, the problem only becomes more complicated.” Based out of Carson City, Nevada, Feeding Pets of the Homeless works with veterinarians across the country to collect dog and cat food at local pet clinics and hospitals, which in turn are partnered with soup kitchens and food pantries that distribute resources to the homeless community. Involvement allows vets to publicize their business while simultaneously helping supplement the nutritional needs of companion animals within this populace. In addition to Frederick’s efforts, several humane organizations offer spay-neuter clinics and related veterinary services that benefit the pets of indigent guardians.
Wilson and Rowdy were fortunate enough to have private donors pay for veterinary expenses—a generosity that made a huge difference in both their lives when the 12-year-old dog’s failing health prompted Wilson to make a heart-wrenching decision in November 2005. After it became apparent that bladder and kidney problems were causing Rowdy increasing discomfort, Wilson had the terrifying experience of witnessing her cherished pet collapse and come close to death outside the shelter where they were staying. “I remember watching him and praying to God not to let him die there,” she tearfully recalls. “I kept thinking that he deserved better, that he shouldn’t breathe his last breath in the parking lot of a homeless shelter.”
Thanks to the kindness of the staff at the local clinic that had been treating Rowdy, Wilson’s decision to euthanize him shortly thereafter was met with compassion and support, even if it remained painful. “Now that he’s gone, I miss being needed, and I miss being loved,” she says. “But other people were kind enough to help me make sure that his final moments were peaceful and free of pain. As we said goodbye, he looked in my eyes, and I knew he was ready to go.”
As Wilson can attest, few homeless people ever envisioned themselves living hand-to-mouth on the streets. Everything from major medical bills to domestic abuse to natural disasters can throw people’s lives into chaos, leaving them scrambling to pick up the pieces and keep their family—whether furry or human—together. As Hurricane Katrina proved in September 2005, many guardians would rather refuse rescue than part with their pets. It follows that a great number of men and women would choose a park bench before a roof over their heads if their animal is not welcome underneath it.
“Would you give up your child if someone told you that you couldn’t bring him with you?” Wilson asks. “The public needs to understand that the homeless are people, too. We have pets, we love them, and we need the love they give in turn.” Stoops agrees and hopes that homeless guardians will be instrumental in changing age-old attitudes and misconceptions regarding the indigent.
“When people see homeless folks with pets, it makes them stop and realize that these men and women are in many ways the same as any human being. It reinforces to them that the homeless are not, in fact, incapable of taking care of themselves or other living things.” Wilson’s relationship with Rowdy is powerful testimony to Stoops’s words. Though she still grieves for her loss and does not have another animal, she is comforted by the positive impact her pet had on her own life, as well as on so many others. “Rowdy touched more people than I could ever have imagined,” she says. “We weren’t always met with open arms, but I can’t tell you the number of individuals—some homeless and others just familiar passersby—that stop to ask me about him when they no longer see him next to me. He made me realize that not having love is far worse than homelessness. If you have the love of a pet, you can endure just about anything.”
“Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness,” says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, based out of Washington, D.C. “As most shelters that assist abused spouses or partners don’t accept pets, this frequently leads individuals in violent situations to turn to the streets rather than relinquish their companion animal.” In other cases, some choose to remain at home out of fear for their pet’s safety in their absence. It is not uncommon for abusers to exact punishment on animals as a means of psychologically attacking their human victims.
Luckily, many states are working to enact or improve legislation that protects companion animals caught in the middle of domestic violence. Additionally, some animal shelters offer temporary housing for the pets of spouses and partners fleeing abusive situations until more permanent arrangements can be made. For pending legislation in your area, refer to ILGA.gov. If you are the victim of domestic violence or are aware of someone involved in these circumstances, consult a social worker. He or she can assist you in either locating a shelter that accepts both pets and people or works with a local humane facility that can provide for the short-term care of your animal.
Feeding Pets of the Homeless
National Coalition for the Homeless