Street Pets

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

It's not just San Francisco’s population of homeless people that’s so troubling. Many residents of the street have pets, too. Richard Swerdlow has this Perspective.

The dog was adorable, a gray pup with floppy ears, and I was tempted to pet the cute puppy. But I didn't. Not because I don't love dogs - I totally do - but because his bearded, wild-eyed owner was sitting in a tent on a downtown San Francisco sidewalk.

It's a familiar sight -- walking by someone living on the street with all their belongings, including their pet. Some say it's ridiculous -- you can't take care of yourself, how can you take care of a pet? -- but as many as 10% of San Francisco's homeless residents actually keep pets.

Pets range from cuddly (I've seen fluffy cats and furry little dogs) to creepy (snarling pit bulls, rats) to exotic (birds, once a snake).

People who are homeless have pets for the same reasons any of us do, companionship and protection. A dog is both a deterrent to attackers and attraction for passers-by to donate, which is a sad statement. People feel sorry for the animal, but not for the human being living on the street. I know someone who carries treats in her purse to give to homeless dogs.


It raises interesting questions. Should these pets be removed from owners and placed in animal shelters? People who are homeless appear to take excellent care of pets, even denying food for themselves so they can provide food for their pets.

People living on the street often struggle with mental health, and emotional benefits of animal friendship are well-known. But it's not just mental illness -- individuals end up homeless through bad luck, an abusive spouse, addiction, and it's easy to see how people find themselves suddenly with no place for them or their pet to go.

They may look like rag-tag survivors of some post-apocalyptic disaster, but when I pass people and dogs living on sidewalks in these strange, dystopian times, it occurs to me everyone deserves love and companionship, from people or pets.

And, while I'm at it, every person and every pet deserves a roof over their head, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.