As a social worker working primarily in behavioral health for one of the Medicaid managed care organizations or as many refer to as “Obamacare,” I could easily report that about roughly 1/4 to 1/2 of my caseload is comprised of either chronically homeless individuals who individuals who have experienced at least one or more episode of homelessness in their lifetimes. Everyday I receive calls requesting assistance for anything ranging from – where a person can be connected to substance abuse treatment…. or a specialist for a chronic medical condition… to resources about how to apply for social security disability or financial assistance in the Clark County or Washoe County area in Nevada.
Some of the more challenging cases I have had to work with recently are individuals who are facing homelessness or who are currently homeless calling about housing resources in Clark County or Washoe County NV who also have pets. I would argue that the majority of the people who are currently homeless or who are facing homelessness that I engage with refuse referrals to local shelters in the community either due to the stigma associated with being in a shelter, the risks involved with being in the areas surrounding the shelters in Las Vegas or Reno (fear of violence, bed bugs, or exposure to rampant drug users, etc.).
A quick solution to this dilemma for women in Clark County NV is Noah’s Animal House which is an animal shelter next to The Shade Tree– a major domestic violence shelter in the community for women and children in need of immediate assistance or are in crisis. However, many women I speak with would simply rather try to tough it on the street than go to a shelter. The men I work with have significantly limited options for their animals and often will go without housing placement if they cannot bring their animal.
You would not believe what lengths some people would go to – to remain with their pets. They would make ultimate sacrifices, go hungry, remain in abusive relationships, sleep in the desert, risk bodily harm to ensure the safety of their beloved dog/cat/pet. All of this brought me to a greater need to understand what drives this behavior to help better assist the people I work with who have pets.
I found amazing literature about the psychology behind the attachment bonding between the homeless and their pets. Dr. Leslie Irvine pioneered this subject and explored the relationships between the homeless and their dogs further in My Dog Always Eats First
Dr. Marc Bekhoff wrote this fantastic blog – My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals and his quote below about this relationship was particularly profound.
“Dogs often are the oxygen and reason for living for homeless people”
Dr. Zazie Todd also explored this subject in another informative blog post in Psychology today Pets of the Homeless: Attachment Figures and Social Support
The most common trend I find in my daily work with the chronically homeless who have pets is that the majority, if not all of them have ongoing histories of failed relationships, personality disorders, or substance abuse issues that have resulted in their inability to maintain healthy human relationships without being judged for their previous, current, or future behavior. Additionally these individuals have extended histories of trauma/loss/abandonment and these animals serve as a constant source of unconditional love. The animals also often give the people I work with a sense of purpose, a reason to keep going when all seems hopeless.
Overall the common theme I have found regarding the research of this subject is the importance for clinicians and the community to continue to support these types of relationships. It has been shown that having a pet can be very therapeutic and integral to the potential future success of the chronically homeless person. Therefore I will continue to advocate in my community and encourage others to do the same to increase accessibility to low income/affordable housing, and/or supportive resources for the homeless population with pets.
A great organization currently supporting this cause is Pets of the Homeless. Check it out
Featured Image Source: Gordon Webster