Prior to 2015, no indoor shelter in Seattle permitted individuals experiencing homelessness to bring pets inside with them, which often forced a difficult choice. That winter, following the declaration of the State of Emergency, one pet-friendly shelter finally opened, though just for the season, and only for men.
King County Executive Dow Constantine called it “a critical accommodation for many who need to stay warm but understandably won’t abandon an animal companion.”
But the need for services for people with pets is bigger than one temporary shelter during the coldest months of the year. And yet, finding shelter, provisions, care and housing with and for pets can be immensely difficult.
Though many food banks also provide pet food, it can be low quality and unreliably stocked. The Doney Memorial Pet Clinic offers veterinary services but has extremely limited hours due to resource constrictions. Transitioning out of homelessness can be difficult with pets; low income public housing units permit small cats and dogs, but owners of larger dogs may be barred from those services. In the rental market, pet deposits — not to mention additional pet rent — can put housing out of reach.
And while pet ownership may seem like a luxury to those of us who live indoors, there is copious research that shows its real, tangible, demonstrable benefits.
A 2016 study found that homeless teens with pets were three times less likely to be depressed and were less likely to engage in risky behavior, like the use of hard drugs.
Those findings are born out in other research, as well. In a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography from 2013, sociologist Dr. Leslie Irvine interviewed numerous unsheltered folks about their experience living with pets. Irvine, who has studied the subject extensively, found a resounding consensus: Not only did caring for animals help individuals who were living with addiction or mental illness, it also provided a great benefit to their overall self-perception.
“The pets of the homeless represent an unacknowledged social tie, and the use of the language of commitment to describe these relationships contradicts images of isolation and withdrawal,” she wrote in the conclusion. “Moreover, in their well-documented role as social facilitators, animals often initiate relationships between people, suggesting another way that a commitment to an animal can reduce isolation.”
Why, then, do our social structures make it so difficult for individuals living with pets to get inside, whether in temporary shelter or in permanent housing?
Like many other facets of life that are considered normal for folks living indoors, pet ownership is largely seen as the purview of people with stable housing. But as the city begins to move toward lower-barrier shelters and other options, such as encampments, folks living with their four-legged friends may see some of the challenges reduced.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the cofounder of Seattlish. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.