The United States’ homeless population (though impossible to nail down with concrete numbers) has risen to well over 600,000 on any one day. Nearly 10% of those individuals call a pet family, whether it be a dog, cat, rat, and even guinea pigs or hamsters. It’s an unfortunate but obvious fault in the human race when a person finds it easy to look down upon another and pass judgment. But for those whose daily life means stomaching sidelong glances, empty silences, and worst of all, criticism from passersby over their capabilities as pet owners, life is a frustrating thing indeed.
If you share the company of animals, you know how effortlessly easy it is to love them with every fiber of your being, and for many of us that means putting their happiness and needs before our own. For the homeless, it means doing these things nearly 100% of the time without a second thought.
The veracious affection of homeless people toward their pets – which oftentimes means sacrificing food, supplies, and shelter for their benefit – is precisely why the nonprofit organization Collide exists. Located on the Lower East Side of New York City, Collide operates through the Graffiti Community Ministries.
Collide’s mission, according to their website, states:
“Collide is a ministry that provides assistance to homeless youth and travelers of the East Village/LES by offering food and medical care to their companion animals.[…] At Collide, we recognize the critical role companion animals play in the overall well-being of their owners, as they offer emotional support, stability, and unconditional love. We believe all creatures are valuable, and for us, that means compassion extends from the end of the leash to the hand that holds it.”
Anyone can attest to the unyielding love and support animals provide, yet it is simply appalling the number (i.e., almost all) of homeless shelters that do not permit pets. This means that people must choose to either abandon their animals for food and shelter or remain on the streets. Can you guess which decision occurs most often?
Volunteer at Collide Jeff Latzer said:
“This is an incredibly marginalized population whose lives are harder than anything you or I can imagine, in particular the health and safety issues that homeless women face. And yet priority number one is always the well-being of their animal companions.”
Though their budget is limited, Collide works tirelessly to provide veterinary services to pets with the help of volunteer veterinarians, including vaccinations and spay/neuter procedures. They also aid with proper licensing of pets, a protective measure that links an animal back to its owner in the (unfortunately common) instance that law enforcement demand to see proof of ownership.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to take their belief of homeless people’s inadequacy to care for pets to a completely devastating level. Latzer said of a particularly challenging experience on the job:
“We get a call from a grief-stricken client who tells us that when they woke up that morning, the dog leash connecting them to their companion had been cut, with only a crudely written letter left behind to the effect of ‘We gave your dog a better life.’ Nothing could be more traumatic [from either a dog or human perspective] than to have the proudly co-dependent relationship destroyed while you slept together on a park bench.”
To a homeless person, their pet can mean protection, warmth, and most of all, company. The animals do not judge or complain, and they oftentimes need their human just as desperately. Collide understands that the relationship is two-sided.
In addition to providing medical care and licensing services, the organization also serves community meals twice a week, picnic-style. “These weekly meals,” Collide explains on their website, “allow us to connect with our clients while outfitting them with supplies needed for themselves and their animals.”
It’s a real rarity for these people and their pets to be treated as equals in terms of their needs. It is Collide’s hope and ours that we as humans can help eliminate the perception of homeless people as incompetent pet owners by offering help when it’s needed and showing that these relationships are by no means black and white.
We love our pets – our family – and we do for them probably more than we would do for ourselves. This fact doesn’t change with whatever number follows a dollar sign in your bank account. It’s sort of wonderful, I think, that love transcends circumstance in this way.
We have a lot to be thankful for with our pets, and a homeless person and his or her dog, cat, guinea pig, or hamster, experience that exchange both ways.
We are extremely grateful for the efforts provided by Collide and their team of volunteers – you are truly doing something good.
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