It’s not uncommon for people passing a homeless person with a dog on the street to voice sympathy for the animal and derision for the human.

Often based on the assumption that a homeless individual is just using a pet for warmth or to guilt people into giving them money, it’s easy to argue that people who can’t take care of themselves could be subjecting animals to deprivation and risk.

This skepticism is so baked into society that some people apparently consider it acceptable to cut the leashes of homeless people’s animals as they sleep, taking them to a better life. Authorities regularly sweep homeless camps, picking up animals, or grill homeless people for proof of animal ownership they may not have and few pet owners would ever keep on their person.


Yet according to a new study, authored by Michelle Lem of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph and published last month in the academic journal Anthrozoos, these attitudes and practices may be woefully misguided.

Homeless people with pets, the study argues, are drastically less likely to get depressed or engage in risky behaviors than those without animal friends.

“These pets are their only friends,” the CBC recently quoted Lem as saying, “the only way that they’ve experienced unconditional love… These pets have saved their lives in many cases.”

Lem’s study was small, based on the experiences of 198 street youths in the Canadian cities of Hamilton, Kingston, Ottawa, and Toronto, only 98 of whom had pets.

But it matches with previous studies and the opinions of experts who add that there’s no reason to think cats, dogs, or any other animals on the street suffer more or receive less love and care than those in homes.

All of this suggests that both we and our social institutions need to seriously reevaluate how we assess and accommodate these extremely common but often-vilified human-animal relationships.

“Animals become vehicles for redemption,” writes University of Colorado sociologist Leslie Irvine in a 2013 academic article.

They “encourage a sense of responsibility… reward the fulfillment of that responsibility… [and acting] as silent witnesses, they keep [their owners] from lapsing into risky behavior… [they] allow for the construction of a positive moral identity.”

Image by Laurie Avocado via Flickr

Irvine speaks with great authority on the subject, in no small part because she used to believe differently. Years ago, in the Colorado Desert, she recalls calling animal control on a homeless man who wouldn’t let her “save” his dog from his rough lifestyle.

But after sitting down to properly study the situation, she changed her tune. Her must-read 2013 book My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals is perhaps the greatest repository of hard (rather than knee-jerk) information and solid (rather than emotional) arguments on the subject.

Beyond supporting Lem’s conclusions that animals can help homeless people achieve a sense of connection and avoid a downward spiral, Irving’s works point out that, while they may worry about paying for pet food and veterinary services, the homeless tend to be good pet owners.

They almost never use their pets to score sympathy donations, and almost always prioritize feeding their companions before themselves. Sure, they may not have a roof, but many animals—dogs especially—don’t actually need that human construct. What they need is attention and affection, which homeless owners can often offer more of than owners with houses; there’s no guarantee that an owner with an address is any more caring or capable than a homeless owner.

“Homeless people report levels of attachment to their animals that may surpass those found among the domiciled public,” writes Irvine.

Recognition of the benefits of homeless animal ownership is spreading beyond academia these days as well. A number of shelters have opened up around the world that explicitly welcome and provide for homeless companion critters. And even more programs exist to help homeless people find free food, supplies, and veterinary aid for their companions with no risk.

Yet for all the mounting evidence in favor of homeless pet ownership, the vast majority of social services—not just people on the street—still officially reject the idea. In the United Kingdom, only perhaps 9 percent of shelters allow dogs. It’s arguably worse in the United States. More often than not, in order to claim social services, the homeless are compelled to give up their pets.

“They can’t access shelters, they can’t access some addiction treatments, they can’t go into hospitalization,” Lem writes of the situation in Canada, which is not dissimilar to the US.

Image by Steve Willey via Flickr.

Meanwhile the services that cater to homeless pet owners are small; Pets of the Homeless, one of the major advocates for homeless companions and a hard-working charity, only has four part-time employees in their Nevada offices with a budget of just over half a million dollars a year.

As a result, many homeless people eager to seek help wind up sleeping on the streets rather than giving up their pets. This means existing attitudes and policies perpetuate homelessness by threatening to take away one of that population’s greatest aids.

This situation isn’t always a result of knee-jerk assumptions like those made by people on the street who want to “save” homeless pets. Often in the US it’s just the result of regulatory restrictions or a lack of capacity that precludes animals from the homeless services equation.

Those policies, Lem’s study and the works of people like Irvine clearly show, need to change. In order to address homelessness, we need to factor in and respect the value of offering people in that situation a form of companionship, support, and responsibility they often need and desire. We need to make pets a part of our homeless services, not just retroactively but proactively as well, perhaps working the homeless into adoption schemes for neglected animals.

As we do, the inevitable outrage over these programs and policy shifts from the “homeless dogs need saving” camp will hopefully spark dialogue in which the hard facts will win out. For now, the next time any of us feel a reactionary twinge of judgment at the sight of a homeless individual with a pet on the streets, we can start by recognizing our feelings for what they are—a stupid, baseless bias.

This story originally appeared on GOOD.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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