The homeless crisis in our nation is even further compounded by the pet population of the homeless. It is estimated by the National Coalition for the Homeless that 3.5 million people are homeless and between 5 percent to 10 percent of homeless people have dogs and/or cats. Pets of the homeless often lack the proper care and are not spayed or neutered, which, of course, will only serve to increase the problem.
Oftentimes, we see local homeless people with their pets and get a pang to help, but don't always know the best way to approach the person--and how exactly to help. In this article I will discuss some options for helping those in your community who are without homes--in order to help the pets that are at their side.
Realize that there are different types of homeless people. Some are homeless, but live in their car, van or motorhome; others live in camping areas, and still others live literally in the streets. Some homeless people may have mild to serious emotional or mental issues, whereas others had a string of bad luck that turned into homelessness.
Stop and think about what you want to achieve. If you want to help the animal, feeding, providing comfort and tending to their health should be the goals.
Have pet food, bottled water and bowls to offer to the homeless person for his/her pet. If you want to help pets of the homeless on an ongoing basis, keep a supply of these provisions in your car along with a few clean towels, blankets or other soft items so the pet doesn't have to sit on a cold (or hot) hard surface such as a sidewalk or parking lot.
Say as you approach that you are involved with helping pets and would like to provide their pet with food and water. You can also offer something soft for the pet to sit on. When they see you are the "real deal" and there to provide good things for their pet, it will help build trust.
Offer to get a collar and I.D. tag for the pet. You can put the pet's name and your phone number on it or the phone number of your rescue organization if you have one. This way if the pet gets separated from his owner for whatever reason, and is found by an individual or ends up at a shelter, they will call you. It may also deter a police officer or citizen from calling animal control, which often happens with pets of the homeless.
If you want to go a step further and tend to the pet's overall health and well-being, your goals should be: spaying (for a female) or neutering (for a male), inoculations including rabies, a microchip, ear and teeth checkup and flea medication if needed. Bathing and grooming may also be necessary.
In Los Angeles, an animal rescuer named Daniel Guss started The STAND Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity to help stop the abuse and neglect of dogs, mainly dogs (and cats) of the homeless and guard dogs (see Resources below). You might have a similar organization, are considering starting one or simply want to help pets of the homeless as an individual. In any case, you should try to establish a rapport with a local, low-cost veterinary clinic and let them know what you are trying to do: help pets of local homeless people. Inquire about a discount for services.
Give out your business card, like Daniel Guss does, to local homeless people with pets. Tell them you have a partnership with a low-cost veterinary clinic and that you are willing to provide spaying/neutering and other medical services for free. Build the same relationship with the veterinary clinic and ask for a dozen of their business cards so that you can give those out to homeless people to arrange for care of their pets. Make THEM a partner too.
Establish a rapport with a few local veterinary providers, as well as with the local homeless population; by doing so you will be a bridge to the animals being healthy and well fed. After all, that could very likely be one of the things the homeless person wants most: to have their best friend and protector cared for and feeling well.
If the homeless person is mentally or physically handicapped, their dog may qualify as a service dog. After completing the certification process, a service dog will be able to wear a special vest and escort their owner everywhere, including on city buses, as well as be allowed in most homeless shelters. If there is a homeless person and dog that you think may qualify, contact your local humane society, city animal control or Department of Social Services for your county or state, for information on applying. Another good organization to contact is Paws With a Cause. They train service dogs and assist people throughout the country. If they can't help directly, they can probably guide you in the right direction (see Resources below).
Feeding Pets of the Homeless is a wonderful organization based in Carson City, Nevada that helps pets of the homeless throughout the United States and Canada with food and veterinary services. They collect pet food and work with food pantries and soup kitchens to distribute it. They also provide grants to veterinarians to administer medical services to pets of the homeless. Check their website if you need assistance for pets of the homeless in your community, if you would like to donate food and/or supplies or set up a collection site. Their website lists collection sites that are already established (including pet supply stores, food pantries and veterinary hospitals) in alphabetical order by state and then city (see Resources below).
Downtown Dog Rescue was founded in Los Angeles to assist the homeless community of dog owners. It is one of the only programs in the country that was specifically formed to assist homeless dog owners spay/neuter, vaccinate and license their dogs, as well as offer a variety of services including crisis care throughout the dog's life (see Resources below).
Speak to the homeless person with dignity and respect. Be kind if you want to win their trust. Their pet may be the only real friend they have in this world, and your kindness might be the first taste of respect they've had in a long time. Since the pet will have to rest after being spayed/neutered, make these arrangements in advance with a low-cost veterinary clinic. If possible, find one that will allow pets to stay a night or two while recovering from the procedure. Be sure to ask for dissolvable sutures so the homeless person won't need to bring their pet back to have the sutures removed. Network among your local rescue community for monetary and supply donations. There are different avenues for getting the word out for help, including starting a Facebook "Cause" page and blogging. Keep in mind you are a unique entity in that there are very few groups (or individual rescuers) that focus on pets of the homeless. Animal Care & Control of New York City has a unique program called "Pets for Life," which helps keep pets with their owners (including the homeless) in order to prevent them from going into shelters (see Resources below). Check for a similar program in your area.
Don't be fazed if the person is intoxicated. Unless he/she is severely mentally ill, there's a human being in there who will slowly warm to your kindness and generosity toward their four-legged friend. While not discouraging you from providing the homeless person something for him/herself, the goal of this particular article is to help the animal. No matter what the situation, animals depend on people, so it's up to us to spare them of suffering, as well as try to control pet overpopulation and prevent even further suffering.