USA dog tags on wooden background

Susan K. Lee, PhD, RN, CNE

Pamela Willson, PhD, APRN, FNP-BC, CNE, FAANP

Military veterans are at an increased risk for homelessness. Of the United States population, 10% are veterans. Of the homeless adult population, veterans account for 16%, which equates to approximately 66,000 on any given night. Typically, homeless veterans who served during the Vietnam era, are older and report physical and psychological problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol or drug dependencies. Challenges that affect their quality of life include separation from or death of family and friends, decreased social supports, depression, and dependency on others because of illness.

Studies have reported psychological, physiological, and social health benefits associated with companion animals, who play a significant role in effecting change or providing stability to the homeless (Labrecque, & Walsh, 2011; Slatter, Lloyd, & King, 2012). Homeless veterans report having companion animals to fulfill social needs, such as friendship, and unconditional, nonjudgmental love; and satisfying needs of self-worth (Smolkovic, Fajfar, & Mlinaric, 2012).  Homeless veterans who demonstrate high levels of pet attachment may have difficulty finding housing and may refuse opportunities for placement if companion animals are not allowed.

Purpose

According to Pets of the Homeless Organization (2016), some shelters will accept homeless persons and their companion animals. It was believed that homeless veterans would demonstrate high levels of comfort scores on the Companion Animal Scale, would have difficulty finding housing, and would refuse opportunities for placement if companion animals were not allowed. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine the construction of self-worth among homeless veterans by assessing the value of companion animals, and to determine the experiences of homeless veterans with companion animals in securing services.

Methodology

A descriptive mixed method design was used to investigate homeless veterans’ relationships with their companion animals. After obtaining Institutional Review Boards (IRB) approval, participants were recruited at homeless shelters, facilities offering free food and veterinary care, near churches, and in parks where the homeless congregate. A sample of eight participants comprised of the accessible population who were male and female, English-speaking, homeless veterans who had no shelter, and who had companion animals, were sought and interviewed until saturation was thought to be reached. Inclusion criteria consisted of participants ages 21 years and above, who served in the military. Exclusion criteria included people with homes, non-veterans, or those who did not speak English.

Data collection methods included individual, semi-structured, tape recorded, face-to-face interviews; along with a demographic questionnaire and the Comfort from Companion Animals Scale (Zasloff, 1996). Interviews were semi-structured with a prepared, modifiable list of broad prompts and questions that were altered as the situation warranted, gaining a better understanding of the lived experiences. The qualitative interviews included open-ended probes, such as “Tell me about the role your companion animal plays in your overall well-bring” and “What concerns do you have about your companion animal?” The investigator took field notes while conducting taped sessions. The interviews were completed in one conversation, some of which lasted up to one hour.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was conducted and each interview was analyzed and compared to previous interviews to reveal repeated themes and categories. A phenomenological analysis approach was used to search line-by-line, coding the narratives, looking for themes that expressed the meaning that the experience had for the participants. Each interview was analyzed and compared to previous interviews to reveal repeated themes and categories. Data saturation was believed to be achieved when no new data was being presented. The central concept that arose was that homeless veterans have a strong, unyielding bond with their companion animals that over-rides personal needs.

Results

Of the eight participants, three were females and five were males, with a range of pets ranging from a combination of one to five dogs and cats per participant. Once data saturation was achieved, a central concept was identified. Theme one: Homeless persons have a strong, unyielding bond with their companion animals that over-rides personal needs. Interviews revealed that the homeless claim companion animals “saved their lives”, “helped them overcome adversity”, factor into the “decision-making process to facing a better future”, and become the impetus for “wanting to move out of homelessness”, thus encouraging responsibility. Further, companion animals provide “unconditional love” and decrease lapses into unsafe behavior […”stopped me from doing wrong and getting arrested”], such as that associated with drugs and alcohol. An over-arching theme two: was that homeless veterans with companion animals have difficulty finding housing or employment and will refuse opportunities for placement is companion animals are not permitted. This impacted the decision-making process of whether or not to exit homelessness if terminating the human/animal relationship was required. This was evidenced by such statements as, “I can’t stay inside because they will send my dog to the pound….I’m not going to have that”.

Implications

The role companion animals play in establishing and maintaining self-esteem and emotional stability is documented, yet the motivation to find homes, if it means parting with the companion animal, continues to be ignored. Homeless persons are denied housing because of their unwillingness to separate from their companion animals. Additionally, strict regulations exist against having companion animals in shelters and rental units. A strategy to resolve this might be to establish co-habitation shelters for homeless persons and their companion animals that provide food, shelter, and human and pet healthcare.

Conclusions

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 is hoped that policies and practices related to services available for homeless veterans will be developed that will not require terminating the companion animal relationships. As healthcare providers, working with culturally diverse, marginalized populations to improve living conditions and health outcomes is an on-going professional obligation. There is a shared responsibility to ensure that homeless veterans have access to the quality, timely resources and are allowed to keep their companion animals.  

References

Henry, C. L., & Crowley, S. L. (2015). The psychological and physiological effects of using a therapy dog in mindfulness training. Anthrozoös28(3), 385-401. doi:10.1080/08927936.2015.1052272

Labrecque, J., & Walsh, C. A. (2011). Homeless women’s voices on incorporating companion animals into shelter services. Anthrozoos24(1), 79-95. doi:10.2752/175303711X12923300467447

Pets of Homeless Organization. (2016). Shelters in Texas: McKinney and San Antonio. Retrieved October 9, 2016 at: https://www.petsofthehomeless.org/get-help/find-locations/#latitude=29.43199230000001&longitude=-98.50594649999998&zoom=5&types%255B%255D=shelters

Smolkovic, I., Fajfar, M. & Mlinaric, V., (2012). Attachment to pets and interpersonal relationships: Can a four-legged friend replace a two-legged one? Journal of European Psychology Students, 3(1), pp.15–23. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jeps.ao

Texas Homeless Network. (n.d.). Advocacy. Retrieved October 9, 2016 at: https://www.thn.org/advocacy

Zasloff, R. L. (1996). Measuring attachment to companion animals: A dog is not a cat is not a bird. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47, 43-48.

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