From St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 4, 2013. Reposted in honour of US Memorial Day and Harold Palmquist, a US veteran who is biking across the country with his dog to raise money for homeless vets and their pets.
Please God, I have never had to beg on the street and I’ve never been homeless. I don’t know how I’d look after myself, let alone a dog or cat. But people do; they survive on the streets of even the coldest cities, and many do so with a pet.
I have had to carefully parcel out funds so that rent was paid and my cat and I had something to eat. A student promotion credit card was our lifesaver, if a month’s supply of money ran out before the days did. The cat and I ate some odd meals – whatever I could find in the limited food section of Woolworth’s. Grocery stores did not accept credit cards then. Fortunately for us, those times were not frequent.
For some people and their animals, it’s a more regular occurrence. Today, on CBC Radio’s The Current (sorry, story no longer available), the stories of some people perhaps marginalized by society but not by their companion animals. James Bowen, whose cat helped him out as a busker and now as an author. As he said, thanks to Bob the cat, he now pays income tax. A woman whose cat keeps her off crack. A woman in Edmonton who started a pet food bank, with donation bins in pet stores and a system for getting the food to those who need it. And a University of Colorado sociologist who has talked to homeless pet owners and written a book called My Dog Always Eats First.
That book’s author, Dr. Leslie Irvine, talks about homelessness being a “master status” in our society. That means that it overrides all other statuses that a person holds. Those may be “ascribed” such as gender or ethnicity or “achieved” such as profession or educational level. Whether a holder of an advanced degree or a high school dropout, a person sleeping in a doorway is seen only as ‘homeless person’. And you’re not likely to even think to ask what else a panhandler is as you drop your change in his or her cup.
But there is another master status, I think, that people ascribe to themselves: that of “pet owner”. As one, I will go over and talk to a “homeless person” if he or she is accompanied by pet. I see the animal and want to make contact with him or her, and therefore the person as well. This is not to suggest that homeless people should get pets in order to improve their chances on the street.
Accommodating people and their service or pet animals has caused real problems for many shelters trying to be inclusive. Dog fights, fleas, provision for people with allergies and abandonment of animals in the shelter are some that I remember from a radio documentary I heard a few years ago (sorry, can’t find a link).
But for many of us, homeless and homed, our pets are solace and friendship, providing someone else for us to think about and care for. And every dog, cat or guinea pig living happily with their person on the street is one less unwanted animal needing rescue or dying from neglect.