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Understanding The Importance Of Pets

Guest author, Patrick Caruana, gives us insight into the importance of pets for those seeking refuge and shelter. He shows us that homelessness takes many forms, including those who have lost jobs, the youth and those escaping domestic violence. In any situation, an animal remains a constant source of hope and companionship. 

Family pet

“Pets are only for the wealthy, for those who work.”

“If a person is disabled, homeless, unemployed they need to find their own income before I pay for a pet.”

How often have we heard that sentiment? We may even have held it ourselves. For many of us who work in the area of homelessness and social housing, we have encountered that attitude. We also know and understand the fragility of life and lifestyle and how it can change in the blink of an eye.

I have noticed subtle shifts in attitude over the past thirty-five years that I have been involved in the social justice environment. People have started to become more and more aware of the importance of pets. They cannot be thrown away when a persons circumstances change. More recently, people have become more and more accepting and understanding of the bond between pets and their owners.

Over my lifetime the definition of homelessness has changed considerably. People are starting to see that homelessness can affect anybody. So now we have homeless families living in cars and sharing rooms often with young children. These people may well have a pet, usually a dog that has been a part of their family. Many simply cannot get rid of that pet as it is loved and loves back in return.

The number of families escaping family violence has increased dramatically. Women now feel more empowered around the trauma of family violence. One of the things that I have learnt through my work is that the thought of leaving a loved pet behind stands in the way of them leaving or causes incredible distress and worry for them. They worry for the pet’s welfare and safety as they feel that it could become a victim of the violence. The children escaping family violence also become distressed at leaving their pet behind. It is extremely important for the fleeing parent to try and create a “normal” and stable environment for their children, and having the family pet with them is part of that normality of “continuing family life, just a at a couple of different locations for a while”. The family dog becomes the one major constant in all the moves. For families where a child is living with Autism or Asperger’s this is a particularly pertinent issue. Increasingly, organisations that support families fleeing violence are understanding this dilemma, but at this stage there are very few refuges with facilities for pets to be accommodated.

There are also more young people are leaving home situations that are untenable. Young people with pets are increasingly living on the street or in “squats” because there is nowhere that can accommodate them together. This particular cohort is attached to their pets because at age 16-17 years, that pet has been with them almost all their life. The pet gives them safety and again some stability but is also possibly the only provider of some form of love and affection and allows them to share those most basic of human needs.

Today, I remain hopeful that the general community understands that pets bring companionship and safety to those who are homeless and also gives them responsibility and a reason to face each day.

I really would like to encourage people to take a positive view on the impacts that pets have for those that are homeless. This includes supporting accommodation like Jewish House in assisting them to provide pet accommodation and also to encourage landlords and those who either manage rental properties or other crisis centres and refuges to consider the issue and if possible, create a way to provide that accommodation. Look outside the box, maybe your local council allows a person to have several dogs and you could discuss with the rangers the possibility of the council creating a database of pet foster people so that a person who is homeless or fleeing danger can contact the council and know that their pet can be cared for, for a period time.

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