You have likely encountered a homeless person with a pet by their side. You may have even passed judgment without understanding the profound importance of that relationship. While it might seem unusual at first glance, being homeless with a furry companion is actually more likely than you would think. On any given night, there are about 640,000 homeless people on the streets of the United States. Of those, about 5-10% (or 32,000 to 64,000 homeless) have dogs or cats as their companions.

Because animals are not typically allowed into shelters, homeless pet owners choose to sleep on the street with their pet rather than sleep in a shelter.  Why do homeless people own pets in the first place, and what are the benefits of such relationships?

Physical Safety

Living on the street is dangerous, but having a companion can ease some of the stress that danger brings, especially for women. Homeless individuals can sleep soundly knowing their beloved pets will alert them should a stranger approach. One can only imagine the treachery of potential theft, vandalism, and harassment that homeless people are subject to on a consistent basis. With the accompaniment of a dog, there is much more deterrence for those threatening entities. The presence of a dog or cat could also raise noticeability for the individual. If anything were to happen that became life-threatening, other bystanders would be alerted, thus hopefully lending their hand to help.

Mental Health Support

In addition to safety, pets provide immense mental health support to their homeless owners.  It is estimated that one in three homeless people suffer from a mental illness. Owning a pet can reduce that suffering.  Pets can distract their homeless owners from serious symptoms like hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, or rumination. More generally, they provide daily support just by being loyal companions.

Companionship and compassion might be things that we take for granted.  Consider having to live on the street where it is rare to find a civilian passing by who will even acknowledge your existence.  It is often overlooked how people living on the street are deprived of the same social contact that privileged people receive, and their pets become their largest source of company.

Many people may reflexively ask, “Why is someone who can’t look after themselves caring for a pet?”  But in truth, the homeless often nurture and love their pets for good reasons. Pets provide the homeless with an immense amount of security, safety, love, and companionship. Rather than jumping to conclusions the next time you see a furry friend living on the streets with a homeless person, you should recognize the many tangible benefits that pet is providing for its owner.