Dogs Can Be A Lifeline For Guardians Experiencing Homelessness
Across the world, people experience homelessness for a variety of reasons. In the U.K., about one in 200 residents lack secure living arrangements. In 2018, this translated to 320,000 people, 40% of whom were children. The population experiencing homelessness includes not only those who sleep outdoors, but also anyone who has only temporary shelter such as in a hostel or on someone’s couch. Among them, companion animal guardianship, mostly of dogs, is common. There are no exact statistics for the U.K., but studies in other countries have put the number of people experiencing homelessness who care for companion animals at between five and 24%.
For those who are experiencing homelessness, dogs reduce loneliness, depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and criminal activity. The more likable the dog appears to others, the more it may attract attention. This can result in the homeless individual having more interactions with other people, reducing isolation. And while evidence is scant, it appears that dogs of the homeless are cared for as well as those living in homes. However, there is a downside to having a companion animal while being homeless: companion animals can be a barrier to support services, particularly housing, thus perpetuating the cycle of homelessness.
Researchers in this study explored the Human-Companion Animal Bond (HCAB) between U.K. residents experiencing homelessness and their dogs, and examined the health and welfare effects of this bond on both parties. To conduct the study, researchers recruited 20 volunteers who were homeless or insecurely housed and who kept dogs as companions. They interviewed each participant, asking a series of semi-structured questions. The dogs were also present at the interviews. Questions covered demographics, current living circumstances, how they had become homeless, and difficulties in accessing support services. They were asked about their relationship with their dog(s) and challenges in being homeless with a dog.
Of the 20 respondents, 18 were male and two were female. Ages ranged from 23 to 65 years. Analysis of the interview transcripts identified several themes. Participants described their animals as kin, e.g., “one of my kids”, “part of the family.” Asked about what their dog meant to them, they used phrases such as “the world” or “everything.” They also felt great responsibility for their dogs. Among homeless people, one respondent noted, “Our dogs would eat before anyone else.” Subjects also reported getting needed veterinary care for their dogs, though a lack of money could make this difficult.
Participants also related incidents where they were refused access to support services because they refused to give up their dog. As one subject described it, “you can’t go into places to get food because dogs aren’t allowed in there…Trying to get a house to house me and the dog is mission impossible.” Indeed, this problem causes some of the homeless to consider relinquishing their dog for adoption. As one participant put it, “I didn’t want him [his dog] to be on the street either so…I was thinking if I can’t get him in here or get him in to a mate, I might have to consider putting him up for adoption.” Since they saw their dogs as family members, they expressed frustration that service providers didn’t see the value in preserving these relationships.
A mutual rescue narrative was common, where respondents saw themselves as rescuing their dogs but also saw themselves as rescues by their dogs. Indeed, several participants expressed doubts that they would still be alive without their dogs. Fourteen subjects acquired their dogs either from welfare organizations or aversive situations. And like all of us, the prospect of losing their companion was exceedingly difficult. Some respondents suggested that with that loss would come the loss of any incentive for self-care. One stated, “If I lost my dog, I’d probably follow her.”
The narratives described in this study clearly illustrate the HCAB among dog guardians experiencing homelessness. These results highlight the need for service providers to find ways to accept companion animals. The dogs in this study provided numerous benefits to their guardians. They motivated improved self-care and reduced substance abuse and provided physical security. Their presence also seemed to improve psychological health and lead to increased social interactions. Given the primacy of these bonds in this vulnerable population, it’s important to find ways to preserve the relationships. Animal advocates can impact this issue in several ways: they can work to expand the number of housing arrangements that will accept animal companions; locations where people experiencing homelessness could drop off their animals while they seek food, medical care or other services would be beneficial; and finally, they can campaign to improve the social acceptance of people experiencing homelessness as animal guardians.