Last year I wrote about the Pets for the Homeless, an organization that provides pet food and veterinary care for homeless and low-income people in the United States and Canada. When I researched that story, I found that 5 to 10 percent of America’s 3.5 million homeless people own pets, and that the the vast majority would rather sacrifice their own comfort and stay on the streets with their pets rather than be forced to give them up for a night in a shelter.
But Pets for the Homeless isn’t the only organization working to change the plight of street people and their animal companions. A couple of years ago in Vancouver, B.C., municipal and provincial governments and a local nonprofit teamed up to change that. Emergency homeless shelters began accepting pets along with their owners, and so far they’ve helped put a roof over the heads of hundreds of animals and their human companions.
Jill Baron is one of the people who has benefited from the pet-friendly shelters. When she became homeless, she continued to care for three rats and two cats. Sure, she was criticized — a lot of people think homeless people shouldn’t have pets — but, like many of us who have struggled with dark times, they gave her a reason to carry on.
“I don’t think there’s any words for it. It’s what has kept me alive,” Baron said. “They have priority over everything else in my life.”
And she’s never been afraid to sacrifice her own needs to care for her animal companions. “I’ve gone without food for an entire day — many, many days — to make sure my pets ate well. Not just ate, but ate well,” she said.
If only more people who were blessed with a safe home felt the same way. It sickens me that people in secure, permanent housing are willing to discard their pets and sentence them to a life on the street when those pets become an inconvenience.
You can’t assume that just because a person is homeless that they’re unwilling or unable to care for a pet. Organizations like Pets of the Homeless see people at their clinics every day who know that their animals need to be vetted and vaccinated, spayed, or neutered. Kindness, compassion, and common sense don’t disappear the minute you lose your house.
It seems like Vancouver is moving in the right direction. More and more emergency shelters are allowing not only pets but personal belongings like shopping carts; the city’s shelter system is making itself more welcoming for all homeless people, whether or not they have pets. But the number of more permanent accommodation facilities (social housing projects and single-room-occupancy buildings) that allow pets remains steady at about 50 percent.
If we really want to help people get off the streets and rebuild their lives, more homeless shelters need to accommodate animals. There’s no reason pet caretakers should be left out in the cold — literally —because they’ve chosen to keep their beloved animal companions.
Yes, I know the Vancouver story is old. But to be honest, I have a bee in my bonnet about homeless people and the need to see them as humans. I have a couple of good friends who endured homelessness, and I know from what they’ve told me about their lives on the streets that the prejudices against them are incredibly hurtful and that the simplistic “solutions” to homelessness offered up by talking heads are not based in the reality of homelessness.
As the years have gone by and Vancouver’s policy has set an example, more and more animal rescue groups and shelter providers are coming to understand just how important pets are to the people who take care of them, and how important it is to allow the homeless to bring their animal companions into shelters, so I’m optimistic about the future of safe housing for homeless people and their pets.