Many homeless individuals, whether temporarily or chronically homeless, own dogs, cats or both. In some areas of the United States, nearly one in four homeless persons owns a pet. The unconditional love of a pet can sustain a person through difficult life circumstances. For many people without a stable home, a pet is a best friend, constant companion, confidante and the only source of consistency in the pet parent’s life. But much as pets can benefit people who are homeless, they may also be a factor preventing their owners from obtaining housing. People unwilling to give up their pets often find that most homeless shelters and subsidized housing projects are not open to them.
This leaves the homeless pet parent between a rock and a hard place. What would you do in a homeless pet parent’s position? Give up your best friend who would never willingly leave you, or give up a chance to get off the streets? It’s no easy decision for the thousands of homeless individuals who own pets.
For a dog who is well fed and receives veterinary care, living with a homeless owner is no great hardship. Constant companionship is what dogs do best. Keeping warm in the winter is problematic for short-coated breeds, but larger, thick-coated dogs can huddle with their owners and keep not only themselves but the homeless pet parent warm.
Unfortunately, most pets of homeless persons aren’t well fed and receiving regular veterinary care. While homeless pet parents will routinely go without food or other staples in order to provide care for their pets, sometimes no personal sacrifice the owner can make is enough to provide what a pet needs. Even low-cost vaccinations are expensive for someone with no home, no reliable transporation and no income. If a pet needs surgery or medication, treatment may be out of the question.
Cats owned by homeless individuals also face special dangers. If they were indoor cats until the owner became homeless, they may be unprepared for the dangers of cars, other cats and predators when living outdoors. Even a seasoned outdoor cat is likely to have a much shorter lifespan than an indoor or indoor/outdoor cat.
What You Can Do
Homeless pet parents need three things for their pets: Pet food, veterinary care and help transitioning out of homelessness without giving up their pets. The latter is best provided by organizations specializing in that type of work (which, of course, always need donations!), but the first two needs can be met by concerned individuals.
If you own a business or other public building, you can become a collection site for pet food for pets owned by homeless members of your community. Just order a kit from Pets of the Homeless. You’ll need to find a local organization to distribute the pet food you collect, and promote your program to the community. If you don’t own a public location of some sort, approach local business owners and offer to maintain the collection program for them. Small pet stores are often interested in this program, which provides a sales boost for them when shoppers buy pet food to donate.
Don’t want to run a collection site? Check the Pets of the Homeless site for an existing one near you and donate pet food.
As for veterinary care, seek out low cost vet clinics and ask if they provide services to homeless pet parents. When you find one that does, you can make a monetary donation or offer to volunteer with the program. Volunteers may be needed for anything from transporting pets to helping the veterinarian during simple procedures like nail trims or vaccinations.