The Homeless and Their Pets: Mutual Dependence for Survival

Michelle D. Land

Michael, Wayne, and Gonzo_NYC_101515

Michael, Wayne and Gonzo, New York City. Photo: Michelle D. Land

When Wayne (above right) and his dog, Gonzo, sleep at night, Gonzo is both alarm and shield. “If someone is trying to wake me up, Gonzo doesn’t bark, he just lays across me. Same thing if it is raining or there is something going on that I should know about.”

Throughout most of my twenty-minute conversation with Wayne, Gonzo, a brindle pit bull, lay on his blanket curled up, oblivious to my presence. But there was a palpable feeling of interdependence between the two, as there usually is between the homeless and their companion animals.

To homeless pet guardians, their animals are sources of emotional support: friendship, companionship, unconditional acceptance, reduced loneliness, and love. They are “family” and “friends.” They facilitate contact with those who might not otherwise communicate with a homeless person, thereby reducing the social isolation so common to many homeless. They can be strong motivators, providing a sense of responsibility and purpose. Most important, especially in the case of youth, caring for a pet can help the homeless to develop healthier coping mechanisms, strive to stay out of trouble and take better care of themselves.

The pets can be beneficiaries as well. Wayne proudly showed me Gonzo’s mulepack-style saddlebag designed for dogs. A homeless support program gave it to him. Gonzo likes to carry his own things, Wayne explained, because it gives him a sense of purpose. Many a parent has spoken similarly of a child and her backpack. But Wayne was also noting the contrast between Gonzo’s life on the street and the life of a domiciled dog. Most of us must leave our pets home alone for as long as eight to twelve hours a day. Gonzo is with Wayne at all times and has the benefit of constant interaction, socialization and enrichment.

Homeless pet owners constitute a hidden population.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were roughly 578,000 Continue reading

New Book Alert

Temple University Press has published a new book by Leslie Irvine (Sociology, U. Colorado at Boulder), Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters.  Here is the publisher’s description:

When disasters strike, people are not the only victims. Hurricane Katrina raised public attention about how disasters affect dogs, cats, and other animals considered members of the human family. In this short but powerful book, noted sociologist Leslie Irvine goes beyond Katrina to examine how disasters like oil spills, fires, and other calamities affect various animal populations—on factory farms, in research facilities, and in the wild.

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