Finding Shelter for the Homeless and Their Animal Companions

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Pamela Willson, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, CNE, FAANP, VHF
School of Nursing, Texas State University, School of Nursing, Round Rock, TX, USA
Susan K. Lee, PhD, RN, CNE
Nursing Consultant, Austin, TX, USA


Studies of companion animals of the homeless have demonstrated improved human cardiovascular health, reduction in stress, decreased loneliness and depression, and facilitation of social interactions among people. Adversely, giving up companion animals has been found to have detrimental effects on overall health. Companion animals play a significant role in effecting change or providing stability to the homeless as there are psychological, physiological, and social benefits associated with having animal companions. A review of Cochrane, PubMed, and CINAHL databases revealed only one study that extended strategies where homeless care services did not mandate surrender of companion animals. The purpose of this study was to explore facilitating space for animal companions with homeless shelter administrators.


A mixed methods approach for data collection included direct observation; individual, unstructured, face-to-face interviews; and tape recordings, along with a demographic questionnaire and the Comfort from Companion Animals Scale (Zasloff, 1996). Twenty homeless individuals were recruited across rural and urban cities. Ten homeless shelter informant administrator interviews explored facility policies/practices for accommodating participants’ animal companions. The aim of this study was accomplished by applying a qualitative structured interview process that explored facilitating space for animal companions with homeless shelter administrators in selected locations. The Facilitator Structured Interview Guide was framed by a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis. Homeless shelter administrators and recruitment sites were identified by internet searches of the Homeless Coalition, Homeless Network, and snowballing technique. Ten locations were sought that encompassed both larger and smaller cities. Administrators were offered an agency donation incentive of $150. Phenomenological analysis approach was used to code the narratives looking for themes that expressed the meaning that the experience had for the participants.


Specifically, the researchers determined that homeless demonstrate high levels of attachment for their animal companions, and that they have difficulty finding housing, refusing opportunities for placement if animal companions are not allowed. Findings have implications for point of care agencies to tailor services to the needs of homeless persons with companion animals that supports improved health outcomes. Homeless shelter administrator key informants were able to describe the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of their facility’s policy/practices for homeless individuals with animal companions.


It is estimated that thousands of persons are homeless on any given night. Homeless people have companion animals to fulfill social needs: friendship, while demonstrating unconditional, nonjudgmental love, and satisfying basic needs of love and self-worth (Smolkovic, Fajfar, & Mlinaric, 2012). Over the past 25 years, multiple studies have demonstrated human health benefits of relationships with companion animals. Companion animals have been found to play a significant role in effecting change or providing stability to the homeless as there are psychological, physiological, and social benefits associated with having animal companions (Labrecque, & Walsh, 2011; Slatter, Lloyd, & King, 2012). Recent research on homeless Veterans with companion animals has successfully demonstrated homeless Veterans' high degree of pet attachment, the difficulty finding housing, and the Veteran’s willingness to refuse opportunities for placement if animal companions were not allowed. According to Pets of the Homeless Organization (2016), very few cities have shelters that accept homeless persons with companion pets. The purpose of this project is to expand prior work with homeless Veterans to include a sampling of the general homeless population across Texas and to describe homeless shelter administrative policy/practices on companion animals.

This project builds on past work and is designed to address the access of homeless persons with companion animals to a basic necessity of life—shelter. The benefits of companion animals to the health and welfare of individuals is established and the science will continue to grow with the use of “service animals” and “therapy animals” to improve psychological and physiological health conditions (Henry & Crowley, 2015). Through gained knowledge and understanding from this research, it may be possible to inform policies and practices of services on a national or global level that are offered to homeless persons without necessitating the termination of the animal companion relationship, a future which could likely involve a service or therapy animal. As community and primary care professionals, working with culturally diverse, marginalized populations to improve living conditions and health outcomes is an on-going professional obligation and personal desire. There is a shared responsibility to ensure that men and women who are homeless have access to the quality, timely resources and are allowed to keep their animal companions.