Homeless with Pets

Living Homeless

Homelessness is a state of being; it is not a description of a homogeneous group of people.  Homeless people may have come from privileged backgrounds or ones with limited income, from full employment, jail or substance treatment.  People may cycle into homelessness for a few nights or weeks and then not return to being homeless.  Other people may be longer-term homeless or have several episodes of homelessness.  Just as homelessness is experienced over various lengths of time so how people live as homeless differs.  Some may live on the streets or in encampments, some in shelters, some in vehicles and others sofa surfing.

Just as homelessness needs to be thought about in a nuanced way so do the various causes of homelessness: often a complex mix of bio-psychosocial economic drivers. Homelessness has a number of contributory factors. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2009) found 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness: 33% of all single homeless. Being homeless is such a difficult and often traumatic experience it can worsen and add to mental health conditions.  The abuses associated with homelessness can for example lead to as well as worsen PTSD. 

In these circumstances why would someone not want a companion animal to be with them.  The animal, often a dog, functions to protect, emotionally and physically; the animal is non-judgmental when there are difficult behaviors as a result of mental health issues, the animal might help ameliorate some of the feelings of depression, loneliness and even suicidal ideation.  A dog or cat can be a trusted friend when other agencies and people can be seen as antagonistic.  A dog or cat does not notice when a homeless person fails to wash or to take care of themself because their mental illness stops them noticing.

Homelessness is a product of life circumstances such as poverty or relationship breakdown and domestic violence.  The majority of women are thought to be homeless because of domestic violence (National Coalition on Homelessness 2009).  28% of families were homeless because of domestic violence (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008).  

Homelessness is a product of the broader political and economic context such as the global economy and the demand for services and products.  While job creation has happened since the 2009 Great Recession, many jobs have been at minimum wage or demand skills for which people are not trained.  The minimum wage $7.25 has not risen since 2009. But costs of housing have.  In 14 US States the Housing Wage is calculated to be $19.35 per hour in 2015 (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2015). There is a $12.10 per hour gap between minimum wage and housing wage.  A gap hard to bridge, makes paying for necessities difficult and means that people are vulnerable to any economic set-back, for example, the loss of a second job or the loss of a partner’s job.  Once someone has become homeless trying to get rehoused is enormously problematic even with a full-time job how can the gap between low wage income and the cost of housing be reduced ?  Many homeless people are working while living in shelters or in their vehicles.

Substance abuse is often thought synonymous with homelessness.   How and why people abuse substances may include trying to manage their own mental health symptoms and so to feel better, trying to manage the difficulties of being homeless or trying to fit into a homeless culture.  Inevitably some people become homeless as a result of substance abuse and related consequences of criminal activity and imprisonment, but some become addicted to new or take more substances as a result of homelessness.  Substance abuse is both a consequence of and a leading factor in the continuance of homelessness among individuals. It is estimated that nearly half of all individuals experiencing homelessness, and 70 percent of Veterans experiencing homelessness, suffer from substance abuse disorders. A majority of those with substance abuse disorders also suffer from moderate to severe mental illness.  Substance abuse may lead to some people being declined housing services or access to permanent housing and through this process becoming more divorced from service provision.

Homelessness can provoke compassion in people, just as it can a sense of  fear and judgment.  Homeless people as individuals can become victims of individual violence and attacks, hate crimes and brutalization (National Coalition for the Homeless).  Homeless people can become victims of legislation when local authorities try to manage concerns about people sleeping in public places or the distribution of food and other items to homeless people in public places (National Coalition for the Homeless).  Services to help homelessness people can be blocked by communities concerned about homeless people being attracted to where they live, work or play because of service provision.