dog ownership and homelessness

It’s Time to De-Stigmatise Dog Ownership and Homelessness

Written by Steph McCulloch
"Many homeless individuals find owning a pet empowering, so perhaps it’s time that instead of criticising homeless people for owning pets we take a look at the arbitrary and ever-changing rules in place that stop them from accessing the support they need and examine the multi-faceted issue that is homelessness and the circumstances that lead to it happening."
a person sitting on the floor wearing a red jumper and holding their dog

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cost of living crisis, homelessness has increased throughout the UK (current statistics estimate that there are 320,000 people experiencing homelessness in the UK, with around 5-25% of them being homeless with a pet). Sadly, lots of hostels refuse to provide accommodation for pets placing homeless people in a difficult situation with many, understandably, turning down shelter in favour of remaining with their companions.

Hostels play a vital role in addressing the escalating homelessness crisis and offer temporary refuge and assistance in securing long-term housing. Despite their importance, studies reveal that just under 10% of hostels in the UK accommodate pets. This puts homeless pet owners at a significant disadvantage, leading to less than 7% of people being willing to part with their pets in exchange for housing. This shouldn’t be a decision anyone has to make.

a dog hugging their owner

Although linked to many benefits on human health and relationships, dog ownership amongst homeless people remains stigmatised by the general public due to a perception of poor care and mistreatment. However, whether conscious or not, these thoughts fail to acknowledge the lifesaving impact animals can have on humans, with many dogs becoming a source of physical and psychological solace for someone experiencing homelessness.

It’s been proven time and time again that pets possess the ability to alleviate feelings of anxiety, stress and depression among owners from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles. Studies have also shown that homeless people with pets are affected less by loneliness and depression further highlighting the integral role dogs play in providing community, support and affection to those facing the struggles of homelessness. Research from 2020 also found that homeless people who own pets were less likely to engage in criminal activities and misuse alcohol and drugs.

Whilst dogs can enable positive cognitive function and resilience, they also help to dismantle social barriers by acting as conversation starters and mediating interactions, as anyone who walks their dog daily knows. For someone facing homelessness, these conversations and interactions can reinforce feelings of community and inclusion as well as act as a lifeline to finding somewhere pet-friendly to sleep. But finding somewhere to sleep with a pet shouldn’t have to occur through a chance encounter.

a brown dog resting his head in a pair of hands

Though research has dispelled many negative myths surrounding pets and homeless owners, pet ownership can, unfortunately, in the current social climate we find ourselves in, exacerbate the problem further. For example, many homeless people are denied shelter and access to food simply because they own a pet. The problem then worsens due to a lack of resources, understanding and knowledge around pet ownership by those who work to alleviate issues of homelessness.

This continues to feed a vicious cycle as many owners are forced to sleep rough with their pets after being denied accommodation. The most common reason pets are denied in hostels and shelters is due to health and safety risks. However, those who work directly with pets and homeless owners help to foster a routine of exercise, cleaning, feeding and responsibility where pets are involved. This is still yet to prove a negative experience - hostels and shelters that allow owners to bring pets have reported multiple benefits to owners and even other service users.

waggel and wild at heart foundation staff stood outside of food bank holding dog food donation boxes

At Waggel, we want to help people stay united with their pets no matter their circumstances or background and will continue to provide support in as many ways as we possibly can. Since 2023, we’ve donated over £12,500 to Wild at Heart Foundation to allow them to continue offering care and support to dogs in need. Part of this donation helped to oversee the development and subsequent launch of a pet foodbank in South London. Another portion of this donation has supported Street Paws with their Dog Champion Scheme.

The Dog Champion Scheme helps to provide hostel staff with full training to ensure they’re familiar with canine behaviour and comfortable working with dogs. Staff also help to create pet policies and owner agreements to ensure a positive experience between dogs, owners, and hostel team members at all times. They also provide canine first aid training, welcome packs (including dog bowls, food, leads and collars), and accessible veterinary care to all residents.

Whilst many of us can look forward to the privilege of blankets and heating this winter, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a reality for all. We believe that changing the perception of homeless pet ownership is a key way to reduce this increasing social issue and, in turn, can help to support and empower many individuals who currently find themselves restrained by challenges out of their control. We are continuing to support Street Paws’ Dog Champion Scheme as well as the Norwood and Brixton foodbank with the hope that in the future these resources will be more widely available and recognised.

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