I live in a large city fraught with homelessness. Many years ago, when I first moved to Portland, Oregon, those living in destitute conditions stationed themselves along one main street called Burnside. But over time, the increasing numbers of impoverished have been pushed to every boundary of the city. They panhandle at freeway exits, outside of stores; they mingle in the hub of our big-city sidewalks and sleep in cardboard boxes under the freeway overpasses. Although I’ve grown conditioned to the presence of the down-and-out, I have not become desensitized or unaffected.
There are many ways I could go with a topic about the homeless, but my focus now is on what often catches my attention: the large numbers of them who have animals accompanying them. I’ve seen snakes, ferrets, and rats wrapped around necks, slung over shoulders, and even a bird sitting atop a head that had no desire to fly away. These kinds of pets do seem practical because they can easily be tucked away inside a jacket if necessary. But what about all the dogs I see sidled up to so many of these folks? And not just Pit Bulls or German Shepherds which, understandably, would be good for protection. But now I’ve seen Chihuahuas, Shitzus, and Dachshunds. What that tells me is that animals are needed for plain old companionship. And who needs the unconditional love that animals provide more than the disadvantaged? Animals keep these sometimes emotionally fragile people connected, even when they have every reason to disconnect from any hope for their future. So often the homeless are snubbed, sneered at, and mistreated. I wonder if, once they have an animal at their side, or in their lap, if they occasionally get asked, “What’s his name?” by someone delivering a pat to the dog’s head, and maybe, eventually, “What’s your name?”
Service animals have been invaluable in assisting the handicapped for decades (i.e., Guide Dogs for the Blind), but now there is proof that animals are extremely beneficial for mental health, too. They are used in therapist offices and mental health centers to calm people suffering from anxiety and PTSD. In every abuse support group that I’ve been in, members discuss their pets–and we all seemed to have one or yearn for one.
Children who have been abused benefit greatly when given a pet. The animal can facilitate self-esteem and a sense of responsibility. Parents often don’t want to get their child a pet because they end up being the ones who end up taking care of it. They need to remember: pets don’t teach responsibility–they do. Pets are an excellent vehicle for learning. They bring comfort and are non-judgmental. A hurting child may learn to trust first through a pet.
We are in the dead of winter here in Portland with record snowfall–a foot of the white stuff fell overnight, and it’s still falling. I’m constantly thinking about the homeless–we’ve had four die in the last couple of weeks from exposure. I wonder if they had a dog to huddle with at the end . . .