social justice

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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Why I Think Pets Are Good For Shelters

What are the benefits of letting pets accompany their owners in refuges and shelters? Patrick Caruana shares his personal experiences in the sector, seeing the many and varied benefits of animal companionship.

Patrick Caruana

Guest author Patrick Caruana has a passion for social justice and housing and has been working in the sector for many years to help people change their lives for the better. He currently works at GCJ Sessional Management Services to help businesses reach their potential in a dynamic environment.

I have seen the benefits first-hand of providing accommodation for pets of the homeless in shelters and refuges.

As a landlord, I provided my tenant a property with two kennels, secure gates and fences for her two dogs. When she came to view the house and saw the facilities for her dogs I saw her visibly relax. She had separated from her husband, who had threatened to destroy the dogs if they were left behind. She had been unsuccessful in securing housing because she had four girls and the two dogs. She has lived in the house and made it a home for the past five years.

I managed a retirement living and aged care facility in rural Victoria in the early 2000s. All the Independent Living Residents were encouraged to have pets. Those that did were encouraged to take their pets when visiting the Residential Care Facility to see friends or family. The joy on the faces of both residents and staff was really special. The staff were also encouraged to bring their dogs in to the residential care facility. The Director of Nursing and the two Division 1 nurses used to bring in their golden retrievers daily. From the moment they walked through the doors they would be off lead and free to wander the facility. They could sense the impending passing of a resident and would go and sit in their room with them.

Having the dogs there was so successful that we actually turned a glassed-off internal courtyard into a mini zoo. The local vets advised us and we put together a menagerie of birds, different reptiles, possums and a small pond. The animals were not natural predators of each other and we made sure they were always well fed. Residents often watched the animals around the glass. It was a really calming feature.

I moved on from that organisation and began working for a youth support agency, which had a crisis refuge for young people up to the age of 21. Again, all staff were encouraged to bring their dogs in when they came to work. The really amazing thing is that the dogs seemed to sense which of the young people were really vulnerable and approach and nuzzled them until they got a response. The dogs stayed by the side of the young person until they sensed that they were calm. They wandered freely through the house. If a group of young people stayed for a week, the dogs would rotate and spend one night with each young person. They did this intuitively without any input from the staff. Those who called the service were asked if they had a pet and were invited to bring them

The amazing thing is that the dogs seem to understand that the refuge was a place of high stress and tension and they didn’t get aggressive with each other at all. They sensed that peace and calm was what was needed, and they provided that.

I, myself, have two kelpies and could not consider a life without them. When I’m down or worried and when I’m happy, they sense that and provide fun and extroverted companionship.

In 2014, the recognition that pet therapy is integral to also assisting those with mental health issues, along with the anecdotal evidence that I presented, should go some way to establish and confirm the benefits of allowing pets to accompany their owners into homeless refuges. Perhaps the refuges could form partnerships and collaborate with animal shelters. That way, the shelters can provide the homeless centres with either pet food packages or through larger economies of scale purchasing partnerships to provide the homeless centres with cheaper pet foods.

From my experience and perspective, there are no significant negative impacts in allowing the homeless to bring their pets into the centres and providing pet accommodation. The only impediment to instituting initial change is in our minds. Once we are prepared to step outside the accepted thought lines, anything is possible.