When local animal-rights advocate Jaime Morgan interned at an anti-cruelty animal shelter, she got a stream of messages from city folk who had seen people living on the street with their pets. Those messages were always some version of, “How do we get this dog/cat?”
“People were seeing homelessness as cruelty to the animal, but they weren’t seeing the person with the animal,” says Morgan (a friend and former co-worker of mine). “As an animal advocate, I don’t think it is fair to expect people to be compassionate towards animals when we can’t be compassionate towards each other.”
Morgan researched services for pets of people experiencing homelessness, hoping to find a shelter she could direct both people and pets to. “When I came up empty-handed, I started thinking of ways I could develop a resource.”
And now help is here thanks to a program at Morgan’s new Philadelphia-area non-profit, Misfit Manor. The Manor is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming animals at high risk of euthanasia (like pets too young or too old to thrive in a shelter, or who have an injury or illness shelters aren’t equipped for).
But removing at-risk animals from shelters isn’t the whole story. “We also strive to keep animals out of the shelter system altogether by assisting families who are facing a hardship like homelessness,” Morgan adds. Misfit Manor’s My Dog First program helps provide vaccines, pet supplies, transit to veterinary partners, and temporary foster care for animals of people experiencing homelessness.
Morgan says it’s hard to assess how many homeless people in the Philadelphia area are living with a pet: surveys of the homeless population tend to happen at shelters, where animals aren’t allowed, and many people experiencing homelessness are invisible to the public eye, living in cars or couch-surfing. She’s currently partnering with the national organization My Dog is My Home to develop a way to track the number of people experiencing homelessness along with their pets.
If you feel scorn for people living on the street with a pet, Morgan would urge you to consider the painful double bind they often experience.
“Pet-friendly, affordable housing is very hard to find in the city,” she notes. A lot of places ban pets, some allow only cats, and others have strict size limits. When someone with a beloved pet is forced to change their living situation, the heartbreaking outcome is often surrendering the animal to a shelter, “and then people judge them for giving up their pet.”
“But what’s the alternative?” Morgan asks. “Homelessness. And then when they’re homeless with their pet, they’re accused of being cruel.”
And a word about this so-called cruelty. Simply being homeless with a pet is not animal cruelty, Morgan says. “I think it’s important to remember that animals don’t understand our social constructs. It makes no difference to a dog or cat whether their human lives in a mansion or on the streets. Their home is where their person is.”
Social media today makes it easy to think that pets need cute clothes, expensive treats, plush beds and spa days to be happy: “We have essentially taken the human idea that material possessions equal happiness, and applied it to our pets.”
And here’s another thing to consider. Morgan estimates that half of the homeless individuals she has helped through Misfit Manor have a disability. People with disabilities may be at higher risk for homelessness for a variety of factors, and they may rely on their animals (including emotional support animals and service dogs) more than the average pet-owner.
These individuals were some of the clients who attended Misfit Manor’s inaugural pet health fair in 2017, which offered services like vaccinations, flea and tick preventives, wellness exams, treatment for minor ailments, grooming and pet food (all services that Misfit Manor works to provide those in need throughout the year). Morgan is hoping to make the fair a twice-yearly event.
Outreach is a challenge: getting the info to people who need it, as well as gaining people’s trust. Accustomed to judgement from others, people experiencing homelessness often fear that someone offering help for their animal will try to take their animal away from them. But that’s not what Misfit Manor does.
And it turns out that helping people’s animals is a simple way to honor the people themselves. “On more than one occasion, I’ve had someone say to me, ‘Thank you for treating me like a human. Thank you for understanding how important my dog/cat is to me,’” Morgan says.
“As an animal advocate, I believe compassion for animals begins with compassion for people. And every person I’ve helped has confirmed that for me.”