In Their Shoes: The relationship between the homeless and their pets

In Their Shoes: The relationship between the homeless and their pets

You’ve probably seen them, the homeless men and women on the streets with a dog or cat curled up right beside them. Your first thought might be, why? Why would they take care of another being when they can’t take care of themselves? Why would they put their pets at risk?

It turns out that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the homeless and their pets, and that in some cases, they can actually be the motivator to getting the folks that are down on their luck out of their current conditions and onto a better path.

“Pets are sometimes the one thing that is very stable for them, and they are sometimes their only friends or even family,” said Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth.

She says that often times the pets that come into the free cleanic are in good condition, and she’s even seen some homeless people come in with pets that are over-fed.

“Sometimes I think they are more interested in their care of their pets than their own care, and feeding them before they feed themselves” she said.

And that hypothesis is the driving force behind a year-old experiment, a clinical partnership between Washington State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Nursing called Healthy People + Healthy Pets.

Broadly, what it does is provide basic treatments and vaccinations free of charge, for both pets in need, and then at the same time, provide similar treatment to their owners, who might not otherwise come in for care. Its also a learning environment for veterinary and nursing students, who get hands on clinic experience and the opportunity to work with patients they wouldn’t often see.

Two of the patients who came to the clinic with their pets, were Lori Broomhall and Tracy Vaughn. Both had been homeless until late December, when they were able to turn their situation around.

“Being a woman it had its challenging moments,” said Broomhall, “I wanted to stay where it was lit up and away from where the other homeless people gathered, I’d try and be by churches. I had to bear through the winter months. I just never want to go through that again.”

She ultimately met Vaughn, and together with their pets, they went from the streets, to motel rooms, and then ultimately their own rental. She acknowledges that having pets with you while you are homeless can be a challenge.

“I always provided them with what I had, food and water and stuff, and I tried to keep them clean,” she said, “but its not like having a home. Its a different environment out there.”

Vaughn credits his pets as one of the motivators in getting off the streets.

“You want to take care of yourself, but you want to take care of them mostly, because they are out there with you,” said Vaughn.

Bigger picture, the Dean of the WSU School of Veterinary School Dr. Bryan Slinker says that their model is proving successful when it comes to addressing public health concerns, and its also providing data which supports opening up shelters and clinics to both homeless people and pets. Pet ownership can often be a barrier to homeless people seeking resources, but he says you can’t look past the fact that there are many other benefits.

“Pets provide unconditional love and their support helps mental health,” said Slinker, “trying to keep that human pet bond intact is critical to the health of the human.”

He says there is also evidence that suggests that owning a pet can improve physical health, in such ways as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress.

“We keep each other going, if you love them, they love you back,” said Broomhall. “I would never part with my animals.”

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