Stop saying homeless people shouldn’t have pets.

I’d stopped to talk with a young homeless man, giving him a dollar and asking if I could pet his dog. His dog had been with him for five years he told me, even before he had become homeless, and she kept him alive.

“My dog always eats first. ALWAYS.” his sign read.

His name was Gerald and I believed him.

Photo: walencienne / Getty Images

The complex issue of homelessness

An estimated 550,000 people are homeless on a given night, 32% of them staying in unsheltered locations, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that “each year at least 2.5 to 3.5 million American sleep in shelters, transitional housing, and public places not meant for human habitation. At least an additional 7.4 million have lost their own homes and are doubled-up with others due to economic necessity.”

A lack of affordable housing, lack of employment opportunities, decline in available public assistance, lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction all contribute to homelessness.

For individuals working minimum wage jobs, housing is largely unaffordable. A full-time worker must earn $17.90 an hour to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment, calculates the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Even high wage earners may be one paycheck away from being unable to pay rent. Some 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, a number that only drops to 10% by those making a whopping $100,000 or more, reports human resources company Career Builder.

Up to 57% of women who experience homelessness say domestic violence directly caused their homelessness and 38% of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives, according to the Family & Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Nearly half of people experiencing homelessness have a mental illness, with at least 25% of homeless people seriously mentally ill.

“There are many more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than receiving care in hospitals,” reports the nonprofit Mental Illness Policy Org.


Homeless people and their pets

Some people who became homeless brought their dogs with them; others adopted dogs while on the street. For those experiencing homelessness, dogs play critical roles in their lives as companions and protectors.

The pack of two

Dogs and other pets provide unconditional love and non-judgment of their owners — there are no strings attached.

Pets can abate the loneliness that often defines a homeless life.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in “So Lonely I Could Die.”

In addition to serving as companions, dogs act as a social lubricant, inviting pleasant exchanges and conversations. This may be the only human interaction a homeless person experiences in a day.

As emotional support animals, dogs offer extraordinary comfort to their humans. Pets can also provide a reason for being. Responsibility for the care of another living creature gives a sense of purpose and value.

Protectors

The homeless population is especially vulnerable to violence and other crimes, including physical and sexual assaults.

“A person who is homeless is less likely to perpetuate a violent crime than a housed person, and is in fact more likely to be the victim of a violent crime, especially if they are a homeless woman, teen, or child,” according to the advocacy toolkit to combat the criminalization of homelessness by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Dogs can be fierce protectors of their humans, and even small dogs can sound an alarm when danger is present.


Care of pets by their homeless owners

“The strength of the bond between people and their animal companions is well documented; people make huge sacrifices for their animals. Just because someone is living homeless does not reduce the strength of the bond or the willingness to make a sacrifice for an animal companion,” according to Homeless with Pets, a nonprofit organization based in Sonoma, Calif.

Unfortunately, most homeless shelters do not allow homeless people to bring pets into the facilities. Pet owners must often choose between keeping their pet and have a hot meal and a safe place to sleep at night. It is with that kind of sacrifice homeless pet owners commit to the care of their animals.

Programs like VetSOS (Veterinary Street Outreach Services) help. Through pop-up vet clinics in San Francisco, VetSOS provides free veterinary care for more than 500 companion animals belonging to homeless people every year.

Homeless people with pets find ways to provide food, water, and, of course, companionship. Without their human companions, pets could end up living on the streets alone, as stray animals, or euthanized in shelters.


When I hear people saying that those experiencing homelessness should not be allowed to have pets, I think of Gerald and his sweet dog, and him saying that she keeps him alive. Pets aren’t luxuries — they’re lifesavers.