The video below from World Animal Awareness Society shows an aspect of dog ownership that doesn’t often get discussed: Homeless people who keep dogs as pets while living on the streets.
Although the video covers two different homeless men in Detroit and one family who isn’t homeless at all, its title is in the form of a confrontational question based on only the first of the homeless men: “Should Homeless People Like Dog Man Be Allowed to Keep Dogs Like Lucky?”
I understand the need to have eye-catching, provocative titles in order to make your content stand out on the Internet. I’ve been known to do it myself. But in this case, the title just makes me want to respond with another question: Why are we even asking this?
My answer to the video’s title, of course, is yes. Absolutely. “Dog Man” and Jerry, the other homeless man interviewed, should be able to keep their dogs. The fact that it’s even considered a provocative question worthy of debate speaks volumes about how we think about poverty and mental health issues in the United States.
The worst part about writing for Dogster is that I’m exposed on a regular basis to the very worst things that people do to dogs. Examples of cruelty for cruelty’s sake, like the people who go around leaving poisoned meatballs on public streets, are legion, as are stories of cold-hearted neglect, like the one about the owners of Green Acre Dog Boarding, who shut over 23 dogs into a tiny room and let them die of heatstroke.
The truly grotesque and horrible things rarely get written about on Dogster; to do so on a regular basis would be too overwhelming for both staff and readers.
With all those accounts of sadism and of mistreatment locked in my mind, the relationship between Dog Man and his pet — and that of Jerry with his — seems touching to me, not a problem that needs to be solved.
Most discussion about homeless people positions them as threatening outsiders, not as our neighbors or fellow citizens who need help. The opinions expressed in this video are no different. Before Dog Man even gets a chance to speak for himself, he’s described by Mark Ramos of the Michigan Humane Society as a problem that his organization isn’t able to deal with properly, largely because of the generosity of others:
We’ve been aware of him for two or three years. He kind of moves around in the area. Part of the problem is, if we go out there and take this dog, he’s just going to get another one. He’s got so many people helping him out, it’s not going to stop. They’ve made it easy for him to have dogs and take care of them. When you see other rescue groups or animal shelters pulling up and giving him a 30-pound bag of food, it makes us harder for us to do something when something does happen.
I know a lot of people that want us to just go out there and snatch that dog, but he’s got rights just like everybody else does, whether they’re homeless or not. He’s got just as much right to an animal as anybody else does as long as he takes care of it and does what he’s supposed to do with it. It’s getting him to understand that and getting everyone who enables him to understand that. If we can get that man to take care of his animals and move them away from the street, that’s a win.
Note that people who give Dog Man food for his dogs are referred to as enablers, as if they were causing a problem, rather than trying to alleviate it. He admits near the end that Dog Man has the same right to own a dog as anyone else, but that seems to be more a source of frustration than anything else.
A better question to pose in such a video would be, “How can we help homeless people so that they are better able to take care of their pets?” Unfortunately, such a question is almost verboten in American media; we are far more likely to talk about poor people (homeless or not) as predators or nuisances who need to be defended against. Most public policies focus more on how to stop them from bothering us with their presence rather than finding ways to give them the resources they need. Even those agencies that distribute whatever frugal amount of services or goods that we’re willing to allot invariably do so with qualifications and strings attached, to make sure that it doesn’t go to someone “undeserving.”
There is also the question of what kind of harm it would do to a homeless person like Dog Man if we did take his pet away. I am not even remotely qualified to make judgements about someone’s mental health based on 30 seconds of video footage. (The Internet would be a better place if more people were to admit that.) However, there’s a really good chance, based on the stresses of street life, that Dog Man does have some mental health problems, and that his dog is an important part of his everyday support. To take that away because we think that homeless people shouldn’t have the small comfort of a pet would be calculated cruelty.
Ultimately, I think that my version of the question is more humane and worthwhile. When writing about dogs, one of the things that gets under my skin is how commonly some are willing to abandon compassion for their fellow humans in order to show compassion for dogs. That’s just as unacceptable as the reverse.
Read more commentary by Chris Hall: