Catherine Toth Fox: Why We Shouldn't Judge Homeless People Who Have Pets - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeYears ago, pre-pandemic, I saw a fluffy Pomeranian with a Barbie-pink collar strutting alone down Kalakaua Avenue, like she was meeting friends for coffee.

It was early in the morning, and I had just gotten out of the water. Dripping wet and lugging my surfboard, I followed the self-assured dog along the sidewalk, hoping her owner was nearby.

She was. And she was homeless.

The owner — who was actually walking right behind the unleashed dog, though I hadn’t noticed her at first — picked up the Pom and nuzzled her against her cheek.

A lifelong dog owner and animal advocate, I was initially worried about the health and safety of this pup, which was clearly living on the streets in Waikiki. How could this homeless woman have the means to care for a dog when she couldn’t properly care for herself, I thought to myself.

Turns out, after a lengthy conversation with the woman, she could — and did — care for her pet, even putting her dog’s needs (food, hygiene, health care) above her own. We talked about the vet she visited, the groomer she used, how picky her Pom was about dog food.

And the dog was perfectly healthy, her teeth were clean, her coat pristine. Clearly, this woman, regardless of housing, loved and cared for her dog. And the feeling, evident by affectionate licking and tail-wagging, was mutual.

Homeless dogs pets homelessness Catherine Toth Fox column
A Hawaiian Humane Society team organized a wellness clinic last year during which local veterinarians and veterinary technicians provided vaccines, microchipping and checkups for dogs and cats. Hawaiian Humane Society/2021

According to the 2022 Point in Time Count, 28% of Oahu’s unsheltered homeless — defined as those who live on the streets, in their cars or other places not meant for human habitation — have at least one animal.

That’s much higher than the national estimate, which hovers between 5% and 10%, according to the Nevada-based nonprofit Pets of the Homeless. And these owners are highly unlikely to give up their pets to enter shelters or other housing that won’t allow animals. Right now, Oahu has only two emergency shelters that allow pets — not just service animals.

According to a 2009 study published in the peer-reviewed Psychological Reports, the human-animal bond is so strong that many people experiencing homelessness will not live separated from their pets, not even for safe or free housing. They would rather live on the streets.

“When you talk to these people, it becomes so clear, so quickly that this is the most loving relationship in their lives,” says Stephanie Kendrick, director of community engagement for the Hawaiian Humane Society. “It’s a really precious relationship.”

Homeless dogs pets homelessness Catherine Toth Fox column
A cat rests on the shoulders of its owner during a pet wellness clinic for homeless people and others in need. Hawaiian Humane Society/2021

One of the group’s functions is to investigate potential animal cruelty and abuse, and it says there is no evidence of increased abuse or neglect within Hawaii’s homeless population, despite public assumptions — including my own.

“There’s no correlation between housing limitations and animal abuse,” Kendrick says.

The Honolulu-based advocacy organization has been doing wellness checks with the island’s homeless population for years.

Teams often go out because of complaints — loose or aggressive dogs at homeless encampments, for example — but the humane society also does regular outreach to this community through its Pet Kokua Program to provide education, assistance and services, which can include vaccinations, microchipping and medical care.

The Hawaiian Humane Society helps with the cost of spaying and neutering, and provides free pet food — all donated — to unsheltered homeless people.

“The need is significant,” Kendrick says.

Covid-19 exacerbated the problem. Not only was the organization providing free food and help to a regular group of owners in need, but that group was growing. People lost jobs, people had to move — “and the need in the community went through the roof,” Kendrick says.

Its Pet Food Bank, which is open to the public three days a week at the Moiliili campus, distributed 71,000 pounds of food in 2022, up 39% from the previous year, Kendrick says. The number of people served — which is not limited to unsheltered pet owners — rose from 2,446 in 2021 to 3,354 in 2022.

The food bank is in desperate need of donations, much of which right now are coming from individuals dropping off unopened bags and cans of pet food.

We can all help. Donating food, blankets and money to your local shelter is one way. But being compassionate is another.

Yes, there have been reported cases of animal abuse and neglect in homeless communities — including homeless pet owners running puppy mill operations to sell their puppies to retailers — but that happens outside of this community, too. And it’s rare.

Homeless dogs pets homelessness Catherine Toth Fox column
Hawaiian Humane Society’s Pet Kokua team goes out into the community for on-site visits to pet owners in need. Recent outreach events included visits to the Waikele Stream area. Hawaiian Humane Society

According to the 2020 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, pets offer comfort, provide an emotional bond of loyalty and, in some cases, protection and warmth to homeless owners. Taking these pets away or denying homeless pet owners a safe place to stay are not solutions.

As a community we need to look at increasing and improving pet-friendly emergency shelters and permanent housing, funding more street outreach, and providing education and training to those who work with the homeless community about animal care and welfare.

We need to stop being so judge-y, show some compassion and do something about it.

“We have to look at the bigger picture here,” Kendrick says. “We have people living where no one is meant to live because they have no other option. We need to do a better job as a society of taking care of each other.”


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Great story to share with everyone. Let us not judge people, instead we need to understand them. We are all capable to help one another and we need not forget the animals.

Mapuana1 · 2 months ago

I live on Kauai in the jungle near the Moloaa Bluffs. I have three cats. My life would be tremendously worse without their constant companionship. I think there is a big difference though, between dogs and cats. My cats know their territory, they will not threaten anyone nor kill any birds, and they will stay in this area even if I'm gone for days. I think it would be much tougher living on the streets though with an animal.

Scotty_Poppins · 2 months ago

"As a community we need to look at increasing and improving pet-friendly emergency shelters"If our society/community seems to be unable to care for the homeless, isn't it a stretch of empathy and a jump over priorities to worry about the pets of the homeless?In these times, is this concern relevant?Or is this focused concern for pets a diversionary relief from the big problem of increasing homelessness that society refuses to solve?

Joseppi · 2 months ago

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