It is estimated that between 5-10% of homeless people have pets, with dogs the most common animal. Homeless pet owners provoke a range of reactions, from curiosity to hostility. Two key questions on the topic are: Why do homeless people own pets? And should homeless people have pets at all?
In many ways, the reasons behind homeless pet ownership mirror that of the general public. Companionship and mental health benefits are two common reasons. This can be particularly important for the most vulnerable in society. Other reasons are more unique to those who find themselves on the streets; safety and security, for example.
Some people criticise homeless pet owners: ‘how can they look after a pet if they can’t look after themselves’. Such a belief reflects a people-centred view of shelter which fails to appreciate that pets are essentially animals who do not need a physical home. Having a pet gives homeless people a reason to look after themselves, creating a sense of responsibility. One study in the US found a positive link between addiction management and pet ownership.
Another common misconception is the notion that pets provide extra benefits. While animals can encourage interaction and conversation, they are not used as an income generating tool. Rather, they are a reminder that anyone can love and cherish a pet no matter one’s life circumstances.
One of the major challenges among the dog-owing homeless population relates to accommodation. According to a survey by the Dogs Trust, two thirds of homeless dog owners are forced to live on the street because they can’t find somewhere to stay with their pet. Indeed, it is estimated that only 9 per cent of homeless hostels are dog friendly.
Pet ownership also complicates longer-term housing options. Considering 80 per cent of private sector landlords will not rent to homeless people as they are deemed to be ‘risky’ tenants, pet ownership makes the situation even harder.
For many who find themselves on the streets, however, housing feels like an insurmountable problem filled with hostility and judgement, in contrast to the love and companionship looking after a pet can provide.
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