Homeless people and pets — should they or shouldn’t they have them?

You could argue either way, but there’s not a simple answer. Or is there?

By Fransi Weinstein

A homeless man sit with his dog on the street

Would you be alone if the first words out of your mouth were “are you kidding me, a homeless person with a dog, they can’t take care of themselves, let alone an animal?” Probably not.

Even I have to admit, on those rare occasions when I’m being rational and practical, that having both people and animals living on the street, fighting the elements, without enough to eat, barely surviving, would only exacerbate the existing problem. At least on the surface.

But then the more emotional, humanitarian side of me kicks in; and that me reasons that all of us, homeless or not, fight and fear loneliness. None of us wants to end up alone.

Dogs and Homelessness A

All of us, homeless or not, need and want companionship and love.

Which brings to mind a youngish (late 20s, early 30s) homeless guy I used to see all the time on the corner of Bay and Bloor in downtown Toronto. He was there for years, with his dog, some kind of a German shepherd mix I think.

The affection they had for each other was obvious. The dog always lay quietly by his side, with his head on his lap. His human buddy was always hugging him, petting him, talking to him, loving him.

Needless to say, the dog attracted a lot of attention, there were always a lot of people milling around, talking to the guy, wanting to know about the dog, in particular. He spoke about that dog as devotedly, proudly and lovingly as we talk about our pets; and it was pretty obvious they were best friends and wonderful company for each other.

I have to tell you, the dog was clean and brushed and looked healthy and well cared for. And while I don’t know for sure, I’ll bet you any money that if push came to shove and there was only enough food for one of them, the guy would have gladly given the food to the dog.

Dogs and Homelessness D

Some pretty telling statistics prove that point.

So I went digging to see what, if anything, I could come up with regarding homeless people and pets. What I found was staggering – 3.5 million1 Americans are homeless and five to 10% of them have cats or dogs. In some areas of the country it’s as high as 24%. In Canada the number of homeless in any given year is between 150,000 – 300,000. In Toronto alone it is estimated that 10% of homeless people have pets.

I also found some pretty dramatic and interesting statistics on The Homeless Hub:

-In one study of homeless adults in California, 74% said that their pet was their only source of companionship and love.

-In another, this time with homeless women living in shelters in six Canadian cities, 51% said pets were a source of comfort and 82% reported a sense of loss when they had to surrender their pets in order to stay in shelters. Sadly, in all of Toronto, though, there’s only one shelter (Fred Victor Bethlehem Union Shelter) that allows pets other than service animals.

-In yet another, of 398 youth in LA, 23% had pets, 84.5% said they provided company, 79.3% said they made them feel loved and 70.7% reported their pets gave them someone to love.

A homeless man on the street holds a sign with his dog

Am I the only one who thinks maybe there’s an idea here?

We’ve got huge numbers of unwanted, abandoned animals who either try to survive on their own on the street or end up in shelters, many of which are, horror of horrors, high-kill shelters. We’ve got huge numbers of unwanted, abandoned, disenfranchised people who, for one reason or another, also end up on the street.

Why aren’t we thinking outside the box, trying to find innovative solutions instead of just giving up, hoping someone else will take care of it?

Why aren’t we hiring the homeless to care for these animals? We could pay them a small fee, which would give them some income and make them feel like useful members of society, make them feel like they had a purpose, make them feel needed and wanted, make them feel human.

Dogs and Homelessness C

Such a program exists, in San Francisco, well, it existed. A $10,000 grant paid for a pilot project, but I’m not sure they were able to get enough funding to continue. It was called WOOF (Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos). In exchange for agreeing not to beg for change, panhandlers were paid up to $75 a week to take care of abandoned dogs.

This seems like such a win-win situation to me. How do we make it happen?

Dogs and Homelessness B

But in the meantime there is some assistance out there. There are people and organizations trying to make a positive difference. Here are just a couple of examples I found when searching:

On the Pets of the Homeless website, you can enter your location to find donated pet food and supplies, homeless shelters that allow pets, free clinics, emergency veterinary care, and other resources in the US. and Canada. Preventative health care for animals of the homeless is also provided by Community Veterinary Outreach, at the Ottawa Mission and also in Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Toronto.

They’re all heroes as far as I’m concerned.

1National Coalition on Homelessness