The framework’s policy, public, and service interventions are drawn from empirical research on pet ownership and homelessness, as well as the diverse backgrounds of the authors, which includes lived experience and professional practice with pet owners experiencing homelessness. Policy and service examples are integrated throughout the framework. Although these are mostly North American examples, the framework is not intended to be limited to this region and likely has applicability to homeless, housing, and healthcare systems in other countries around the world. Furthermore, the interventions that comprise the framework are intended to be beneficial to the homeless population broadly, but considerations for youth are also provided given this group’s unique needs.
The multilevel intervention framework provides policymakers; housing, human and animal health, and social service organizations; and homeless advocates with a set of actions that can be taken to more meaningfully support pet owners and augment efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Many of the proposed interventions are implementable within broader homelessness policy and strategic action plans. Although all interventions are expected to be beneficial for pet owners experiencing homelessness, leverage points that could facilitate implementation of the framework are likely to differ between communities. As such, intervention prioritization and implementation needs to be tailored regionally to the needs of people experiencing homelessness, the housing sector, and health and social service systems.
3.1. Policy-Level Interventions
Aligned with a health equity approach, actions are needed at the policy level to remove barriers to accessing housing and emergency shelter for pet owners experiencing homelessness. Beginning with the latter, emergency shelter policies that prohibit pets are a prominent barrier to accessing temporary accommodation and accompanying health and social services [25
]. Because of this, pet owners are more likely to sleep outdoors, in vehicles, or in derelict buildings [25
]; living arrangements that are associated with higher mortality rates than sheltered homelessness [20
]. More pet-friendly emergency shelters are needed to promote the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness and their pets. Given estimates of pet ownership among the homeless population [25
], social service systems should aim to have a minimum of 10% of emergency shelter beds be pet-friendly.
There are examples of pet-friendly emergency shelters in many cities, which demonstrate that it is feasible to concurrently support people experiencing homelessness and their companion animals [26
]. This practice is referred to as co-sheltering and can take different forms, including having pets sleep in the same room as their owners, having a designated onsite animal housing area, or partnering with animal health and welfare organizations (e.g., animal shelters, pet boarding services, animal rescues and fostering) to offer temporary boarding options. Wherever possible, it is recommended that pets stay with their owners so as to preserve the human-animal bond and reduce fears around pet loss [26
]. It is also critically important to address known barriers, including organizational concerns, to the development of more pet-friendly emergency shelters. In a survey of emergency shelter service providers where pets were not allowed, common reasons for why this was included: health and safety of service users and providers, hygiene, space, potential damage to facility, noise, and cost [42
]. Many of these issues can be prevented or mitigated through planning and partnerships. For example, implementation of screening procedures when pet owners enter the shelter, development of rules for having pets stay with people in the shelter, and communication of the responsibilities that pet owners have while in the shelter can be helpful in reducing potential health and safety issues. Furthermore, collaboration between the homeless service and animal health and welfare sectors can be mutually beneficial in developing and addressing issues related to pet-friendly emergency shelters. Animal health and welfare organizations can provide support and guidance around animal health and safety, co-shelter design, and access to veterinary services [26
]. In turn, the animal health and welfare sector can benefit from a decreased likelihood that people experiencing homelessness need or are forced to surrender their pets, as well as increased access to an underserved population of pet owners [26
Enacting more pet-friendly policies in emergency shelters will also help to create more fully low-barrier service options (i.e., programs that accept people how they are by having minimal requirements for accessing support), which are instrumental for accommodating the diverse and complex support needs of the homeless population. Accordingly, communities that are intending to increase their low-barrier emergency shelter options should explicitly include pet access requirements in requests for proposals. Some governments in the U.S. have begun doing this by incorporating pet-friendly shelter models into their broader strategies for reducing and ending homelessness. For example, in New York City, the Department of Homeless Services actively solicits innovative emergency shelter models to reduce unsheltered homelessness, including models that accommodate pets [62
]. Similarly, some municipalities in California recognize that low-barrier shelters that accept pets, partners, and possessions are critical to their efforts to reduce unsheltered homelessness [63
A similar problem exists in rental housing markets, with the lack of pet-friendly options perpetuating homelessness for people with pets. In a survey of over 100 landlords in the U.S., less than 10% stated that they allowed pets without restrictions, whereas 44% limited pets (by size and/or type) and 47% forbid them [64
]. The barrier that this presents for pet owners experiencing homelessness is further exacerbated by widespread affordable housing shortages in most cities [65
]. With low vacancies and no laws against ‘no pets’ housing policies, pet owners experiencing homelessness are left with few to no affordable housing options. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to remove ‘no pets’ policies in the rental housing market. Such a policy shift would be well aligned with the push toward housing as a human right [67
], which recognizes that everyone has the right to adequate housing. From this perspective, housing rights cannot be disregarded due to pet ownership. The removal of ‘no pets’ policies in the rental housing market must also occur with a concurrent enforcement of those new laws. For example, in Ontario, Canada, it is illegal for landlords to reject housing applications or evict tenants on the basis of pet ownership. However, the law is poorly enforced, with many people also being unaware of their rights in this area [41
]. As such, it is not uncommon for housing rentals to continue to be advertised as not allowing pets, deterring pet owners from pursuing the unit given the potential hassle and stress associated with dealing with an unaccepting landlord.
Although increasing pet-friendly affordable rental housing is expected to help pet owners to exit homelessness, such policy changes also have implications for maintaining tenancies. Pet owners’ security of housing tenure is strengthened, as they are not breaching tenancy terms by having pets and living with the constant threat of eviction [68
]. Furthermore, as it is, pet owners may stay in unsatisfactory or poor quality housing due to challenges in finding other affordable pet-friendly housing [68
]. Similarly, youth and women with pets may delay leaving unsafe home environments, including abusive relationships, due to limited pet-friendly housing options [28
], thereby forcing them to choose between ongoing interpersonal violence, life without their companion animals, and/or homelessness. For these reasons, increasing the supply of affordable rental housing that does not prohibit pets has the potential to enhance housing stability and prevent homelessness.
Financial deposits required of pet owners, which are also known as pet deposits or pet bonds, represent another barrier in the rental housing market. In a survey of over 100 landlords in the U.S., 73% of those that offered pet-friendly housing required a pet deposit, which averaged about 40–85% of the monthly rent [64
]. This was in addition to pet-friendly housing having higher rents than housing that did not allow pets. With prospective renters who have pets already feeling powerless and discriminated against in housing negotiations with landlords [69
], pet deposit policies further consolidate the power held by landlords. For example, we have seen in our own work and experiences that although some pet deposits are refundable based on whether or not the animals cause any damage to property, such assessments are left to the discretion of landlords, often with little recourse for tenants. For people experiencing homelessness who have pets and are reliant on income supports to obtain housing, pet deposits are an additional hurdle that may be financially unsurmountable. Accordingly, amending rental housing laws to limit how much tenants can be charged as a security deposit (i.e., one month’s rent) and ban any additional non-service charges, such as non-refundable pet-related fees, would protect prospective tenants who have pets, especially those experiencing homelessness. The policy changes would contribute to parity and transparency in how issues related to pet ownership are rectified and could also be helpful for decreasing discrimination toward pet owners experiencing homelessness during the housing application process. Removal of non-service charges does not absolve pet owners of the responsibility for their companion animals. For example, tenants would still be responsible for any property damages caused by their pets and landlords may require that companion animals be spayed/neutered and up-to-date on vaccinations.
Housing First is a supported housing intervention that is effective in stably housing people experiencing homelessness who have complex support needs [71
]. The intervention provides (a) a rent subsidy that can be used to immediately acquire market rental housing and (b) accompanying community-based mental health supports [73
]. Tenants are not required to demonstrate housing readiness or commit to treatment to receive services. Moreover, housing and clinical services are provided separately, allowing tenants to retain supports if they move or lose their housing. As a result of the intervention’s strong research base, some jurisdictions in North America and Europe have adopted the Housing First philosophy as an evidence-based policy approach [73
Implementation of a Housing First approach to housing policy has implications for pet owners experiencing homelessness. The impacts of pet ownership on outcomes in Housing First have not been fully investigated, though pets have been linked to greater community integration [77
] and lack of integration remains an issue for Housing First tenants [79
]. The intervention’s approach is also highly congruent with the needs of pet owners. With its low-barrier and person-centered principles, Housing First does not force people experiencing homelessness to choose between housing and their pets. Instead, Housing First practitioners are able to work with pet owners to find appropriate housing and advocate with landlords [82
]. In this way, Housing First promotes the freedom of people experiencing homelessness to have and keep pets in their lives [83
], which is a necessity to actualizing full individual choice—a central tenet of the intervention. Barriers may still arise from no-pet policies in the rental housing market; however, given the effectiveness of Housing First in stably housing people experiencing homelessness and its compatibility with the needs of pet owners, widespread implementation of Housing First in social policy will be beneficial to reducing barriers to pet owners exiting homelessness.
There are many financial costs to owning pets, not the least of which is veterinary care. Although there are examples of innovative veterinary programs that provide affordable services to people experiencing homelessness in some urban settings [26
], such models of care are few and far between. Accordingly, veterinary services are financially inaccessible to many people who are low-income, including those experiencing homelessness [31
]. To better support pet owners experiencing homelessness, there is a critical need for greater inclusion of veterinary medicine to provide basic pet care in specialized health services for the homeless population (e.g., street outreach, community health centers, and inner city health programs). One method for inclusion is having veterinary medicine be a funded position in these services. This occurred recently in California where one-time grants were made available through the Pet Assistance and Support Program to emergency shelters looking to provide accessible veterinary services, in addition to other animal-related supports (e.g., shelter and food), for pet owners experiencing homelessness [85
]. Delivering veterinary care within health services that are sensitive to the needs of people experiencing homelessness may also help strengthen service connections and reduce pet owners’ fears that animals will be removed from them—a barrier to accessing veterinary care for the homeless population [31
]. A second policy approach for increasing access to veterinary services for low-income pet owners is the inclusion of veterinary medicine in income support programs as a limited available benefit, allowing veterinarians to bill income support programs for provided services. To our knowledge, there are no known examples of this occurring in North America; however, such an approach would enable access to veterinary care beyond cities or regions where specialized, affordable services exist. Benefits for veterinary care would undoubtedly be insufficient for covering all expenses, though could offset the costs of treating some injuries and illnesses, including zoonotic diseases, and providing preventive care, such as immunizations and spay/neuter services, which can be important for obtaining and maintaining housing.
3.2. Public-Level Interventions
Pets can be a trigger for condemnation and harassment of people experiencing homelessness by members of the public. This is partially attributable to the high rates of public disapproval of pet ownership by people experiencing homelessness; approximately 25% in one study and 50% in another [47
]. Common sentiments in Irvine’s seminal study for why the public oppose pet ownership by people experiencing homelessness, include: “They should not have a pet if they can’t take care of themselves,” “They can’t take care of the pet,” and “They shouldn’t have a pet if they don’t have a home” [47
]. Drawing from practical experience, there is also a prominent discourse that “Having a pet is a privilege and not a right” and “If you can’t afford a pet, you shouldn’t have one.” Views that involve animal well-being concerns are unsupported by evidence. A study examining the health of 50 dogs owned by people experiencing homelessness found that they were no less healthy than 50 dogs owned by people with housing [87
]. Furthermore, the dogs of people experiencing homelessness were less likely to be obese or have behavioral issues, such as aggression toward strangers and separation anxiety. There is also ample evidence that the pets of people experiencing homelessness are sufficiently fed, with many pet owners putting the needs of their pets above their own [28
]. Beyond the concern for animal well-being, public disapproval of pet ownership by people experiencing homelessness results from stigmatization and discrimination. Accordingly, there is a need to enhance public knowledge and reduce stigma about the relationship between homelessness and pet ownership.
Although pet ownership and homelessness is a niche area of research, the issue has attracted considerably more attention in the media and public discourse. For example, two recent reviews identified fewer than 20 relevant studies on the subject [31
], whereas searches of “homeless pet owners” on Google News and Twitter (within last year only) yielded more than 100,000 and 150 hits, respectively. The internet search results would suggest that the issue has an attentive public audience that could be potentially leveraged in public awareness initiatives aimed at dispelling myths associated with pet ownership and homelessness. Although no interventions aimed at the public are known to have been developed on this issue, structural stigma reduction programs on mental illness and HIV have yielded positive results and offer approach considerations [89
Key educational messages in any public awareness initiative would need to address the primary criticisms of pet ownership by people experiencing homelessness, such as the baseless belief that people experiencing homelessness are unable to care for their pets, while concurrently highlighting the psychological benefits of the human-animal bond. The latter is a necessary component, as it offers opportunities for relatable stories with which the public can connect. Instead of perceiving pet owners experiencing homelessness as an outgroup with whom they have nothing in common, the public can find commonality in the human-animal bond, which is not bound to one’s housing situation. Lastly, this type of educational work is well-positioned for more cross-sectoral collaboration with animal health and welfare organizations. Bringing in new stakeholder groups with expertise on animal health and well-being will not only be helpful for reaching wider audiences but also for serving as partners in the promotion of policy- and service-level changes to better support pet owners experiencing homelessness.
Panhandling, which is also known as street begging, can be a precarious activity for pet owners experiencing homelessness that frequently results in confrontations with members of the public [23
]. Yet, panhandling is often one of only a few income-earning activities in which pet owners experiencing homelessness can engage without being separated from their pets [36
]. Furthermore, concerns about animal exploitation, which can be a source of conflict in interactions with the public, are often unfounded. Pets may increase monetary earnings from panhandling; however, pets are the primary beneficiary, as donations are predominantly pet food [36
]. Given the necessity of panhandling for pet owners experiencing homelessness, reducing stigma associated with this activity will be helpful for enhancing this group’s safety on the streets.
Anti-stigma interventions aim to reduce stigma and discrimination of a group through the provision of education (to replace myths with factual information) and contact (to challenge prejudicial attitudes and biases through direct and indirect interactions with the targeted group) [91
]. Interventions to increase acceptance of panhandling by pet owners experiencing homelessness would come during a period of changing public attitudes. In the U.S., there has been a shift in perceptions of panhandling over the past three decades, toward greater compassion [92
]. Still, major barriers to panhandling acceptability remain [93
]. Most notably, panhandling is illegal or involves stipulations on how, when, and where this activity can occur in many communities [94
]. As exposure to people experiencing homelessness (i.e., the frequency that people see this group each week) is positively associated with panhandling donations [95
], laws that prohibit panhandling, or criminalize homelessness more broadly, reduce contact between people experiencing homelessness and the public that could be beneficial for promoting empathy and compassion.
There are several key myths that must be addressed in any public intervention to destigmatize and enhance public knowledge about panhandling. First, contrary to the public perception that people experiencing homelessness make large amounts of money from panhandling, the median monthly income is $
]. The earnings are not transforming people’s lives but rather help them to make ends meet while living in survival mode. Second, although drugs and alcohol are a reported expense of panhandlers, the primary source of spending is food [96
]. Furthermore, people who panhandle report greater food insecurity than those who do not [95
], highlighting the absolute poverty in which this population lives. Third, just as pet owners experiencing homelessness protect themselves from the public’s verbal assaults by rejecting the values underlying those messages [47
], interventions need to redefine what pet ownership means to people experiencing homelessness. Here again, it is important to use the research, which shows that pets are sufficiently healthy, pet owners prioritize the needs of their companion animals above their own, and the psychosocial benefits of pet ownership. With appreciation of this evidence, it can then be understood that panhandling donations are likely to flow to meet the needs of pets before the people who own them, preserving and strengthening the relationship between human and animal.