When a Homeless Person Owns a Dog
I admit (embarrassingly) that I am someone who, when I see a homeless person with a dog, I think one of two things: (1) That a homeless person has no business having a dog. If they have to beg for their own food, what in the world are they doing trying to feed a dog too? Poor dog. Or (2): The dog probably doesn’t know any other life so it’s no big deal; as long as they’re loved and with their “pack,” they’re probably happy.
I never gave much thought to what the homeless human gets out of the relationship. Until now:
My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals
A new book by University of Colorado sociology Professor Leslie Irvine is the first to explore what it takes to live on the streets with an animal. Using interviews with more than seventy homeless people in four cities, My Dog Always Eats First reveals what animals mean for homeless people and how they care for their four-legged friends. …Dr. Irvine’s book provides rich descriptions of how animals provide social and emotional support and protection from harm (see also “My dog feels my pain“), and, in some cases, even helped turn around the lives of people who had few other reasons to live.
Dr. Irvine initially found this research to be very challenging. Because homeless shelters do not typically allow animals, homeless pet owners usually stay on the street and “under the radar.” Then, she made connections with veterinarians who hold street clinics for the pets of the homeless, such as VET SOS in San Francisco and the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless in Sacramento, California. She interviewed people at the clinics and even went on veterinary “house calls” into homeless camps, where she would not have ventured on her own.
Building on the work she began in If You Tame Me: Understanding our Connections with Animals, Dr. Irvine continues exploring how animals serve as “significant others” for their human companions. Homeless people told her how their dogs encouraged interaction with others and kept them from becoming isolated. Former addicts and alcoholics described how their animals inspired them to get clean and sober. People who had spent years on the streets explained how they responded to the insults they heard from strangers who thought they should not have a pet. And they praised those who provided pet food and a kind word.
Interesting. I had no idea the relationship between a homeless person and a dog could be so complex or even potentially life-saving. I’ll remember this next time and I won’t be so hesitant (or opposed) to giving a homeless person with a dog a dollar or two from now on.
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