Helping the homeless

Increasing awareness of the roles companion animals play in the lives of the homeless is resulting in more volunteer services to help and care for these pets on the street. With this support, comes new hope and a raft of benefits for carers and pets alike.

Many homeless people living with pets are forced to choose between a shelter for a night or staying on the street with their pet. For those of us who’ve ever had a bond with an animal, it’s easy to understand why they often choose the latter. As well as health and wellbeing benefits, for the homeless in particular, companion animals can provide unconditional love, non-judgemental loyalty, emotional support, companionship, devotion and, often, warmth and protection.

They can also, however, be a source of anxiety for their owners, who not only worry about finding enough food for them to eat, but also about how to care for them, if the pet becomes ill or is injured.

Pets of the Homeless is a non-profit, volunteer organisation that has provided food and veterinary care to animals of the homeless across the US and Canada since 2006.

‘The homeless with pets are often desperate to find a shelter to go [to] that will allow their pets,’ says Pets of the Homeless founder, Genevieve Frederick. ‘They seek help to find a distributing organisation that will give them pet food. They are frantic to find emergency veterinary care for injuries or illness.’
In addition to their own often desperate situation, the added pressure to feed and care for their most beloved friend can be very distressing. Pets of the homeless are mainly dogs and typically have been their companion animal prior to them becoming homeless or have been found or rescued while the person is living on the street. Regardless, they often share a very strong bond.

‘Although pet ownership greatly enriches the lives of those who are homeless, it also comes at a significant financial cost. Annual vaccinations, flea treatment, routine worming, and de-sexing and microchipping an animal costs hundreds of dollars,’ says veterinarian Dr Mark Westman, co-founder of not-for-profit Australian organisation Pets in the Park (PITP).

This financial cost is out of reach for most homeless people. Aware of this need, in July 2009, Dr Westman took an esky loaded with vaccinations and a foldout table and set up in a small park in Parramatta (a suburb of Sydney) offering free veterinary checks and vaccinations for the pets of clients attending an outreach program run by Stepping Stone Community Ministry. This ran for three years until veterinary nurse and TAFE teacher Vicki Cawsey joined Mark and PITP was born. Now they have a team of volunteers and have added another Sydney ‘clinic’ that runs monthly in a church in Darlinghurst. They’ve also recently set up a clinic in Frankston, an outer suburb of Melbourne.

PITP aims to support, build relationships with, and improve the wellbeing of, homeless people in society living with animal companions. Their clients are the homeless or transient-homeless and, according to Dr Westman, will do anything for their pets.

‘We have clients that will go without food and basic necessities for themselves just to make sure their pet is looked after,’ he says.

The relationship between owner and pet is a very significant one as Pets of the Homeless Melbourne (POTH) founder, Yvonne Hong, knows all too well. Before she started POTH – an organisation aimed at keeping families together – she volunteered at soup kitchens and in companion animal rescue. In many ways, starting POTH combined two social issues she feels strongly about.

‘Feeding the homeless and their animals is something that I have been doing whenever I come across someone on the streets and my partner and I even did that while we were on holidays in the US,’ says Yvonne.

‘The main thing that we [POTH] do is to feed the animals so that the humans won’t need to share their food and everyone gets a full meal. But the core objective is to actually keep families together. We don’t only feed them, we also try to help out in situations where we find the animals temporary accommodation so that their humans can concentrate on finding a place of their own.’

Of course, it would be easier if homeless shelters took animals but finding a homeless shelter that takes pets is still difficult, although support is increasing.
Genevieve started Pets of the Homeless after seeing a homeless man and his dog on the street in New York. That raised a number of questions for her and she followed up with extensive research, until she reached her ‘aha’ moment and she realised she could help. That was in 2006. In 2008, they became an official non-profit and now have 357 collection sites and 443 distribution sites who work with distributing organisations – local food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters – across the US (with some in Canada).

Pets of the Homeless also ship collapsible sleeping crates, food bowls and cleaning supplies to emergency and homeless shelters that offer assistance for pets. Unfortunately, though, many assisted housing programs or shelters do not cater for pets.

In Australia, we haven’t found any homeless shelters that provide accommodation or crates for their pets, although there are several support agencies that provide fostering for pets until they can be reunited with their owners. For example, in Victoria, POTH works with the Lort Smith Animal Hospital and with private foster carers in order to help pets of the homeless. For domestic violence services, there’s Animal Aid’s Pets in Peril service. In New South Wales, for victims of domestic violence there’s Jessie Street Domestic Violence Services who provide emergency outdoor shelter for pets, and the RSPCA also provide support through their Safe Beds for Pets program.

Access to care can sometimes be difficult for the homeless who have a pet. For instance, as public transport options are generally limited to those with assistance animals, homeless with pets are often left with walking as their most viable option. By understanding and responding to these types of issues, services and help can be provided.

‘The main issue with being homeless with an animal is that most places won’t take you in if you have an animal with you, so then they are stuck in that cycle because they don’t want to give up on their pets,’ says Yvonne.

Pets of the Homeless US adds, ‘… the biggest problem is that the homeless do not trust people. They’re afraid that they will not get their pet back because it has happened to other homeless. Some homeless have such separation anxiety that they will not go to a hospital when they are in need of medical treatment because they have no one to care for their pet or fear the authorities will take their pet away from them.’

A recent example of this occurred in France where representatives from an ‘animal rescue’ organisation took a dog from a homeless man. These types of actions not only show a lack of understanding about this situation, but a disregard for the importance of the relationship between a person and their pet.
As POTH understands, it’s a relationship worth preserving for all involved.

‘Because I come from a rescue background, I have seen many animals on death row, so basically I am trying to prevent anyone from having to surrender their animal,’ says Yvonne. ‘If it’s something that POTH can help with, we will try our best to do it.’

Text: Lisa Louden

Photo: D John. Courtesy of Pets of the Homeless

For more information on any of these services, please see our list below.
Pets in the Park, Sydney, Australia
Pets in the Park, Frankston (Victoria, Australia)
Pets for the Homeless, US and Canada
Pets of the Homeless Melbourne
Jessie Street Domestic Violence Services
Safe Beds for Pets, RSPCA, New South Wales, Australia
Pets in Peril, Animal Aid, Victoria, Australia

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