Why do people experiencing homelessness have animals?

While each human-animal family has a story that is uniquely their own, there are a few themes that we recognize when we consider why people experience homelessness as well as why they may have animals during such circumstances. First, we want to assert that homelessness is not due to a person’s moral failings. There are systems that contribute to oppression, trauma, and inequitable distribution of resources and wealth. We also recognize that mental health, substance use, and a lack of affordable housing contribute to homelessness.

People who experience homelessness with their animals may arrive in that circumstance in a variety of ways. For example, some human-animal pairs go from housing to homeless together, and some people meet their animals while they are experiencing homelessness. Why people keep animals with them when they are experiencing homelessness can be more simply explained:

  • Animals are family. Regardless of whether or not they enter into homeless with their animals or if they acquire an animal while homeless, people who care for their animals without a stable home show the kind of loyalty and commitment that one would show to members of their family. Without a doubt, it is easier to access services and temporary assistance when you do not have an animal. People who refuse to surrender their animals face additional hardships, and ones they are unlikely to endure unless they care deeply for their furry family members.

  • Companionship, Support, and Unconditional Love. While the day-to-day experiences of homelessness are marked by instability and loss, animals can provide the constant support needed to cope with the stressors and stigma of their circumstances.

  • Protection. Research has shown that people experiencing homeless, youth in particular, report feeling protected by their animals.

Increased socialization. People experiencing homelessness are known to suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness. On top of the animal playing the important role of constant companion, animals can also sometimes act as a social lubricant between people experiencing homelessness and passing members of the public.

Should we be encouraging people who can’t take care of themselves to have animals?

At My Dog Is My Home, we think a lot about the definition of family. We think about this in terms of who is allowed to have family and choices that are given or restricted based upon race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation. What this boils down to for us and our particular mission is that people experiencing homelessness have a right to family, and they have a right to choose that family, just like you and me.

Secondly, there are limited resources for animals that need rescuing and rehoming, ultimately leaving thousands upon thousands of healthy and lovable animals to be euthanized each year for lack of people who want to adopt them. Animals who accompany people experiencing homelessness are often very well loved and cared for. In short, these animals have people who love them. Save rescue resources for animals that truly need rescuing.

We encourage people to keep the bigger picture in mind. By focusing on the solution - ending homelessness and poverty - we can work on putting people in a position to care for themselves and their loved ones rather than spending energy making judgements about who a person can keep in their company. In the meantime, groups like ours work towards a mission of bridging the gap in what people need and what they have access to.

Don’t you feel sorry for the animals?

In most circumstances, the animals of people experiencing homelessness are well loved and well cared for. A researcher named Leslie Irvine did a series of interviews with this population and found that people care for their dogs before they even care for themselves. This theme was so strong that she titled her book My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals.

We also want to challenge how you measure the quality of life for a dog or other animal. A dog doesn’t care how much money you make or even what kind of house you live in. What they desire the most is your companionship and your presence, and dogs who live with people experiencing homelessness get this in abundance from their caregivers.

Are there shelters and housing programs that allow animals?

Yes, but there are only a few, and the majority that we are aware of are on the West Coast of the United States. If you look at domestic violence shelters specifically (or separately from homeless shelters) accepting animals is a more widespread practice.

We should also make a distinction between service animals, emotional support animals, and pets. Few places take pets. All shelters that receive any sort of government funding are required by law to accept service animals and emotional support animals.

If they can’t go to shelter, where do they go?

It is often said that being homeless is a full time job. Between navigating a government system that is heavy on reporting and documentation to waiting for space to open up in shelters or supportive housing, there are significant barriers for any homeless individual trying to access shelter. So when individuals have added barriers to accessing services due to a furry family member, the upward climb to access shelter becomes significantly more difficult. In light of these barriers, people experiencing homelessness with companion animals often chose to continue living outside in order to stay with their animal without the risk of having to surrender them.

How many people experiencing homelessness have animals?

Due to lack of attention and focus on this subpopulation of people experiencing homelessness with animals and the fact that they often choose not to access services for fear of being separated from their animal, there is no definitive number on how big this subpopulation is. In addition to a lack of data, there is no formal data collection mechanism either through non-profits or government agencies to count individuals experiencing homelessness with animals. Due to this data gap, My Dog Is My Home emphasizes rigorous data collection and research in all of our work in order to get a better sense of the scope of the problem.

What does your organization do? What does it mean to “build capacity”?

There are a lot of great organizations that already exist to provide services to people experiencing homelessness. So we don’t feel like we need to reinvent the wheel. Resources should not be spent on creating more of the same. Rather, we’d like to focus on expanding those existing resources so they are equipped to serve people with animals. Thus, My Dog Is My Home does not work with individual clients directly on a regular basis. We work with the organizations and systems that work with clients and “build their capacity” by creating or improving their animal accommodations programs, policies, and protocols. These capacity building services can include:

  • Assessment - to understand the needs of the organization;

  • Training of the organization’s workforce - to help social service workers understand the why’s and how’s of working with the human-animal bond;

  • Consultation on appropriate animal spaces, animal resources, behavior, crisis intervention, among other things;

Our goal is not to create a permanent position for My Dog Is My Home at that shelter, but to set the organization up so that they can integrate this work into their everyday functioning and take over themselves.

What is co-sheltering?

Co-sheltering is defined by My Dog Is My Home as the sheltering of people and animals together at the same emergency or temporary housing facility. There are other types of programs that accommodate animals in off-site boarding or foster care arrangements. Although we appreciate these programs and are invested in their success, My Dog Is My Home’s focus is on the promotion of co-sheltering in an effort to support the widespread adoption of “low-barrier” facilities that do not require people experiencing homelessness to separate from loved-ones in order to access services.

Why promote co-sheltering instead of foster care and boarding?

Keeping people and animals together, physically, in these stressful times is important. As the existing research has shown, some people experiencing homelessness do not want to separate from their animals. In some cases, this can mean foster care and boarding as well. Physical separation may continue to be looked at as a barrier to accessing services. We also believe that it is possible to effectively and efficiently create spaces that accommodate both people and animals together. Foster care should be reserved for other animals that need rescue, not for animals that have a family.

Also, foster care networks require consistent maintenance and work on the back end. My Dog Is My Home’s goal is to assist a program in setting up their animal accommodations and ensure it’s continuous, smooth functioning as we transition ownership and operations to the shelter itself. Although co-sheltering requires a lot of investment on the front-end, co-sheltering programs should operate smoothly once it is established, if it is implemented well.

Why do you have such a big focus on research? Don’t you want to help people?

Research does help people. It’s important for us to put everything through the scientific method so that we don’t provide help that we think people need based on our own assumptions. The scientific process helps us identify what people actually need. Also, research helps support programs that want to change their facilities from “no pets allowed” to “pets welcome.” If we can show examples of other programs that have successfully implemented co-sheltering and how they did that, our evaluation data which was collected through research has real-world implications.

What are you doing in NYC specifically?

Creating change in NYC has been challenging, compared to some other places we have worked. At the moment, we are in the beginning phases of engaging city officials and policy makers around this issue. Of course, this comes with a huge responsibility to educate them on why co-sheltering is important in the midst of a homelessness and affordable housing crisis. In order to make our case, we also need to spend significant time and energy doing our research and taking stock of existing resources, as well as the need. In the future, we hope to partner with or receive the support of the city in piloting a small co-sheltering environment to understand NYC specific challenges and successes, and later an unrolling of a more expansive co-sheltering program.

Why focus on this issue when there is a homelessness crisis?

We focus on homelessness and animal companionship specifically because it is a solvable problem. It is possible to co-shelter people and animals together successfully. We are aware of successful models that operate on fewer resources than one might imagine!

Moreover, we believe that if a true effort to end homelessness performs outreach out to all subpopulations of the homeless, including those who have been left out of service systems for having alternative family. The strategy to end homelessness overall must include a vision to provide people with dignified homes - not just a shelter. A home is more than just a roof. For some, their animals are what make their home.

How can I help?

There are many different ways for you to get involved in this kind of work and with My Dog Is My Home.

  1. At the most basic level you can support us by attending My Dog Is My Home events, donating online, signing up for our newsletter to follow our work, and following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

  2. Additionally, it is equally important to start talking to your friends, family, and co-workers about this issue and the barriers to services this population faces. Once you start learning more about the issue it becomes nearly impossible to ignore it.

  3. This population faces significant stigma, and in some cases more than the general homeless population. Stigma can come in many forms for this population including when you show well intentioned concern for the animals that are with them. If you engage someone on the street who has a companion animals, remember to be respectful and to be aware of the judgments you may be holding.

  4. Do you have skills, time, or other services that you can donate? We are a 100% volunteer run organization, so we are always looking for people to help with high-level work that involved actually running the organization. However, we must warn you - if you want to volunteer, we will ask you to make a serious commitment and honor a 5-hour per week minimum. If you’re interested in volunteering, contact Richard, our HR/Volunteer Manager, at richard@mydogismyhome.org.