Published: Dec. 1, 2012 By

Man and dog

Chester and his dog, Pinto, have moved into housing since associate professor Leslie Irvine did her research on the homeless and their pets. Irvine’s books include If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection with Animals andFilling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters (Temple University Press, 2004 and 2009 respectively). 

For many homeless people, owning a pet doesn’t just mean companionship. It can spur transformative behavioral changes that can save their lives.

On a cold December day, Trish stood on a median just off 28th Street in Boulder “flying a sign,” which is street language for panhandling while holding a piece of cardboard neatly lettered with the words, “Sober. Doing the best I can. Please help.”

Bundled up next to her on a dog bed was Pixel, her 8-year-old Jack Russell terrier. When he was a puppy she had nursed him from the often-fatal parvovirus after a pet-store owner declared him unsellable.

Once a nomadic free spirit who followed the Grateful Dead, Trish was homeless with a felony conviction for heroin possession on her record. She had seen her share of dark times. But just as she’d saved Pixel, he was now saving her.

“I was totally at rock bottom,” Trish says. “I just wanted to die. But I couldn’t give up because I had something else to take care of besides myself. So he kept me alive.”

Trish’s story is just one of dozens recounted in My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animalsforthcoming in February 2013(Lynne Rienner Publishers) by CU-Boulder’s Leslie Irvine, associate professor of sociology. Irvine discovered through her research that animals play powerful roles beyond companionship. They give homeless people a sense of meaning in a world where they have lost almost everything — jobs, homes, families, security.

Like many “domiciled” Americans, Irvine once believed that homeless people should not have pets — and she wasn’t shy about telling them so.

“I remember going up to one guy about 10 years ago and saying, ‘You shouldn’t have a pet. What do you think you’re doing?’ ” she recalls.

And why not? If you can’t keep a roof over your own head and are forever scrambling to find enough to eat, Irvine couldn’t understand how you could take proper care of a companion animal.

Woman and dog in california

This homeless woman never goes anywhere without her dogs in San Francisco where associate professor Leslie Irvine did some of her research on homeless people and their pets. 

But that was before Irvine interviewed 75 homeless pet guardians on the street and at vet clinics for the homeless in five cities — Boulder, Miami, San Francisco, Sacramento and Berkeley, Calif. 

The experience, she says, was humbling. Almost all of the pet-people partnerships she encountered were loving and mutually supportive. As the book’s title suggests, many homeless guardians put the well-being of their pets ahead of their own, sharing food and seeking out such resources as free veterinary clinics. 

Irvine’s fieldwork shattered her assumption that homeless people are less capable of providing for their nonhuman companions than people with more resources.

“Animal control officers in San Francisco (and Boulder) get far more complaints about cruelty and improper care by people who have houses than people who are homeless,” she says.

There are, of course, incidents of animal abuse by homeless people, such as a Boulder case in the fall in which a man was arrested for allegedly kicking and dragging a puppy. But, says Bridget Chesne, director of shelter services at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, the media tend to distort the frequency of homeless animal abuse, in part because it occurs in public, as opposed to abuse in homes that is less visible.

“It’s unfortunate when these stories get so much attention,” says Chesne, who traveled with Irvine on a rescue mission to New Orleans in 2005 following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “Most of the homeless population we see in our community will provide for their pets before themselves.”

What’s more, Irvine found, beyond the obvious benefit of companionship, caring for a pet can actually catalyze behavioral changes that improve a homeless person’s life.

Take Donna, 53, whom Irvine met at a street vet clinic in the poor and crime-battered Bayview-Hunter’s Point area of San Francisco. From age 15, when she was kicked out of her home, until her early 40s, Donna slid miserably through abusive relationships, prostitution and severe heroin, cocaine and alcohol addiction. Along the way, she “got the virus” — HIV.

Then she met Athena, a German shepherd-Labrador retriever mix whom a friend had rescued from death row at a shelter, and her life was transformed. In the 10 years since, Donna has always put the dog’s well-being first, which has transformed her own life.

“She got me out of an abusive relationship. And it was either the dog or him,” Donna says. “I realized that Athena meant everything to me . . . I said to myself, ‘My dog comes first in my life.

Man and his dog

A homeless San Franciscan and his dog wait for a veterinary examination in San Francisco. 

‘Would I rather use drugs, or feed my dog?’ And I fell in love with Athena, so I gave up the needle. Gave up the pipe. I gave up liquor. Everything.”

Caring for a companion animal gives many people a sense of doing something positive, even as they often endure cries of “Scum!” and “Get a job!” It also “works to build a moral identity among people who have few other resources with which to do so,” Irvine says.

“The activities of providing food, sharing half a sandwich, going out of the way to make sure there is a dry place for the two of you to sleep . . . casts the person as essentially good,” she says.

Some homeless even come to see themselves as better pet owners than people in shiny cars zooming past who leave their companions home for eight or 12 hours a day.

“They can give (their pets) 24/7 attention and a real bond,” says Ilana Strubel, a veterinarian who works with Vet SOS — a program of the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium that provides veterinary services to pets belonging to the homeless — and who worked with Irvine.

That bond is no less powerful for the homeless than for people with resources. Irvine was working as a volunteer at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley years ago when a hulking, filthy “mountain man” named Joe arrived at the shelter looking for his beloved dog, Spirit, who had wandered from his squatter’s camp in the forests west of Boulder. He descended the mountain and walked to the shelter on foot in search of his lost companion, never letting up for four years.

“He came in in tears every day and put signs up all over town,” Irvine recalls.

During that time, animal control brought in a stray purebred Basenji puppy. The shelter contacted the owner through information contained in the dog’s implanted microchip.

“He never showed up,” Chesne says. “Here we were, handing his expensive puppy back on a silver platter . . . Yet here is Joe, for whom nothing comes easily, bloodying his feet to try and recover his relationship with his dog.”

“Now,” Irvine says, “who is the better guardian? It’s easy to think that there are many homeless people who shouldn’t have animals. But many domiciled people shouldn’t either.”

Photos courtesy of Mark Rogers Photography