After decades of stigma and a dearth of political willpower, the issue of homelessness in the United States is finally getting the policy response it deserves.
Through progressive policy initiatives, cities across the country are tackling the issue in innovative ways, with phenomenal success. In Salt Lake City, political leaders have cut costs and homelessness simultaneously by offering no-cost housing to families living on the streets; a similar initiative supported by the federal government in Tucson, Arizona, is on the verge of completely eliminating homelessness among veterans.
But as cities and states begin to address homelessness in earnest, a major contributing factor to long-term homelessness remains unspoken: pets. One nonprofit organization, however, is trying to change that, and even Congress has started paying attention.
The issue: For many, the idea that homeless people might even have pets is a nonsensical extravagance. "I just don't think homeless people should have pets," I recently overheard a young woman in a peasant scarf say to her friend, casually peeling apart a blueberry bagel as one of Tompkins Square Park's many homeless residents shuffled by with his dog in New York City. "I mean, if they obviously can't even take care of themselves, why should an animal have to suffer through that too?"
Of the many condemnations of New York City's homeless population one overhears, this one is one of the most frequent. Whether it's a woman with a cardboard sign and a pit bull on the steps of Union Square or a group of crust punks playing with a skinny gray tabby cat on a Bowery sidewalk, homeless people with animals are targets of an almost visceral brand of shame.
"People with nothing are easy to ignore or condemn," Genevieve Frederick, president and founder of Pets of the Homeless, the sole national nonprofit organization dedicated to caring for the pets of homeless people, told Mic. "But when you talk to anyone who has a pet, they'll say, 'I would live in my car before I would give up my pet to a shelter.'"
A rare service: Pets of the Homeless focuses on coordinating pet food and supply donations from more than 260 sites across the country, arranging free emergency veterinary care, wellness clinics for nonemergency care like vaccinations and neutering or spaying services and, most importantly to Frederick, lobbying efforts to allow homeless shelters to let pets join their owners indoors.
"For shelters that say yes, we will send that shelter free collapsible sleeping crates, so that these people can get in out of the cold, out of the heat, off the streets, for just a little bit," Frederick said. "This keeps them in a secure place and keeps everybody safe."
Operated by four part-time employees at its Nevada headquarters and a network of volunteers nationwide, Pets of the Homeless spent 87 cents of every dollar donated in 2014 on services for the homeless and their pets. With an operating budget of $637,107 last year, the organization relies entirely on private donations, corporate partnerships and donated services by participating veterinarians.
With homelessness at its highest point in modern history in some American cities, many may find it easier to distance themselves from homeless people on sidewalks or subways by blaming the homeless for their circumstances. Common misperceptions about homeless people — that they're lazy, stupid or freeloading, unworthy of assistance or sympathy — are magnified by the seeming luxury of animal companionship. But the issue of homeless pets, like homelessness in general, is more complex than detractors might realize.
Why the homeless have pets: Roughly 578,000 people are homeless on any given night in the U.S., according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Due to the high turnover of homelessness, however, roughly 3.5 million will experience homelessness at some point this year. Of these people, Pets of the Homeless estimates as many as 1 in 4 are pet owners. "According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, about 10% have pets," said Frederick. "Talking to other people, they'll say that around 25% have pets."
These statistics, like most data relating to homelessness, are generally rough estimates — due to the transience inherent to homelessness, hard numbers on a national scale are difficult to determine and almost impossible to verify. According to Frederick, the number of homeless, pet-owning and otherwise, is almost certainly higher than the data suggest. "There's a large percentage of homeless that don't want to be counted," Frederick said. "If they see someone walking toward them with a clipboard, they're gone. They vanish."
For the millions of Americans who will experience homelessness this year, restrictions against pets in city-run homeless shelters prohibit them from bringing non-service animals in from the elements. Families are forced to make the near-impossible choice between the welfare of a cherished pet and a safe place to spend the night. For many of the homeless, animal welfare wins every time.
Homeless people have pets for many of the same reasons that people with secure housing do: for companionship, for protection, for their children to play with. (About 216,000 of the homeless people sleeping on the streets are with their families, according to HUD.) Largely, the pets are longtime companions that have joined their owners in the growing ranks of the newly homeless, holdovers from a time when both had secure housing. "These pets have gone into homelessness with their owners," Frederick said.
The relationship between the homeless and their pets can provide huge boons to both. Pet ownership has been proven time and again to be of huge benefit to the mental and physical health of human caretakers. These benefits are acutely felt by the homeless. "The homeless feel invisible. They don't get a lot of interaction with 'regular folks,'" Frederick said. "When they have a pet, sometimes that opens up that conversation, because people will stop for the animal. This might be the only person they talk to all day long."
The practical purpose of animal companionship extends beyond simple comfort or fellowship, however. Pets also serve as a key form of protection — particularly for women, who make up roughly one-third of America's homeless population. Although large-scale studies or surveys of sexual violence against the homeless are few and far between, a 2013 survey of homeless women in downtown Los Angeles found that 50% had been sexually assaulted.
Due to their limited resources, a heavy suspicion of law enforcement and fear that seeking help might result in their own arrest for unrelated crimes, homeless people are often forced to fend for themselves. Animal protection is often the closest thing a homeless woman can get to feeling secure while living on the streets. "It's pretty violent — that's why shelters are a good place to be. But if you can't adhere to the rules, then you're not welcome," Frederick said.
A vital bond: Humans aren't the only beneficiaries in the relationship between animals and homeless people, however. Partnering with a homeless person can save a pet from becoming a stray, abuse and euthanasia. Many homeless people will forego food for themselves to ensure that their animal companions are fed, Frederick said, an act of selflessness that's hard to square with the stereotype of "selfish" homeless people maintaining pets merely as a lure for passers-by with loose change and a guilty conscience.
But life on the streets can be as difficult on animals as it is on humans, with infrequent and often low-quality food, exposure to the elements and harassment posing a risk to pets and people alike. "When an animal is living on the streets with their owner, the chance of it getting injured or ill is a lot greater than your pet in your own backyard," Frederick said. The financial responsibility of owning a pet is about $7.50 per day, Frederick says, enough for an average dog to get two cups of food and the most basic veterinary care, which is often not enough for an animal living on the streets.
The hardship these pets face can be excruciating for their owners, many of whom struggle to scrape together enough money to call Pets of the Homeless in search of veterinary care or a safe place for their pets to stay. For Frederick, those are the hardest calls to get.
"These people are crying, and they are desperate, because they have nothing," she said. "The one thing that they have left is suffering, and it's heartbreaking."
An impossible choice: Just as pet ownership can provide crucial comfort, safety and security for homeless people, it frequently proves to be a huge obstacle to gaining access to the kinds of social services that might help lift them out of homelessness for good. Although state and city regulations vary widely, only a select few homeless shelters allow non-service animals indoors, forcing pet owners to make the unfathomable choice between a roof over their heads and a cherished family member.
"If you can't get these people into the shelter, where are they going to get the social services they need?" Frederick asked. "It's kind of a catch-22."
For victims of domestic violence, the choice is particularly excruciating. Intimate-partner abuse is a leading cause of homelessness among American women: As many as 57% of homeless women report that an abusive partner was the immediate cause of their homelessness. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a horrifying 71% of pet-owning women who enter domestic violence shelters in the U.S. report their abuser has threatened, injured or even killed family pets, often as a method of abuse or control over their partners. Women who endure domestic abuse have prolonged seeking shelter out of concern for their pets' safety — in large part because a vanishingly low number of domestic violence shelters offer any kind of housing for pets.
Congress has taken note. "This is a real barrier for women who are experiencing domestic violence," Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said in an interview with Mic. "These pets become a real tool of manipulation, and domestic violence is so based on isolation. Over one-third of of domestic violence victims say that they have delayed leaving an abusive situation out of concern for their pets."
Clark said abuse survivors she has spoken to have found that abandoning a beloved pet to suffer at the hands of a violent partner can be as damaging as remaining in an abusive household. "Pets were killed and mutilated," Clark said. "One woman, her husband put the body of her decapitated dog in her bed, and she found the head of the dog in her shower the next day. Just awful stories of really heartbreaking cases that not only affect the animals, but have a real impact on women and their families."
To combat the issue, Clark joined forces with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to introduce the Pet and Women Safety Act of 2015, bipartisan legislation that expands federal law to include protections for the pets of domestic violence victims and establishes a federal grant program to assist in acquiring safe shelters for pets.
"The PAWS legislation is a way to work within the Violence Against Women Act to extend the ability to enforce protective orders, no matter what state you're in, and also to make sure that we're giving some grant money to build places [to house pets]," Clark said. "Much like the problem like you're seeing with homelessness, women don't have a safe place to leave their pets if they're entering a domestic violence shelter. Only about 3% of domestic violence shelters can accommodate pets."
The bill, introduced in March, currently has 139 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and has been endorsed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
A key battlefield: Addressing the needs of homeless pet-owners is crucial to addressing the systemic issue of homelessness as a whole, both Clark and Frederick told Mic.
"That's one step of getting them closer to being not homeless," Frederick said. "That's our biggest challenge."
Another challenge is the casual dismissal of issues concerning animals in general. Despite the PAWS Act's many endorsements, Clark told Mic that some congressional colleagues have dismissed the bill as focusing on animals rather than the domestic violence victims who care for them. "Some people sort of belittle that, and say that this is a serious issue about people, and that we shouldn't be mixing the two together," Clark said.
But she sees the PAWS Act as a way to address the needs of both animals and humans at the same time. "What we have come to realize is that these animals are so important to the family, and especially someone who is having so little security and so much isolation in their lives, which is really where domestic violence flourishes. This really is about helping people first, and at the same time we can prevent some real cruelty to animals."
For Pets of the Homeless, however, waiting for federal grants and the strings that come with them isn't an option — especially since so many shelters still dismiss the idea of housing companion animals as out of hand.
"Giving homeless people the dignity that comes with pet ownership is such an important first step to helping them get the services they need," Frederick said, "so that they can begin a new life with their pets."