Four homeless people share stories of animal companions as experts say they take better care of pets than those with housing

Heather, 22, Seattle

Before we found Poppy, I didn’t feel like I had anything to wake up for. I was going through a rough time in my life and didn’t care about myself. I’d been homeless since my parents told me to leave our family house in June 2016, and I was so miserable in my situation. Everywhere I go, people shun me and tell me to leave.

Outside in America is a year-long series on homelessness in the western US. The project focuses on people on the frontline of a devastating crisis and enables readers to take action to help solve the problem.

Then, last March, I was walking around downtown Seattle with my boyfriend when we saw a group of guys with two dogs. They were yelling at one of them, and she was shivering and scared. I went into a store, and when I came out, my boyfriend had the dog. I was confused. He said, “I made a life choice without you; we’re keeping the dog.” He’d paid the guys $5 for her.

I’d never let anybody hurt her again

It was an eye-opening moment for me to look at her properly. She raised her head with a look that said: “Please don’t hurt me.” She had protruding ribs, fleas, missing patches of fur and couldn’t walk properly. I wrapped her in my jacket like a little baby and promised I’d never let anybody hurt her again. And that’s my promise to her for the rest of her life. We named her Poppy after a poppy seed muffin she was trying to eat off the sidewalk.

Heather with her dog Poppy in downtown Seattle, Washington
Heather on Poppy: ‘Seeing her like that reminds me to stay happy for simple things too.’ Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian /homeless people

We moved from sleeping in a doorway to a tent. I stopped stealing food from stores when we were desperate; I didn’t want to go to jail for something dumb and risk losing her. I’ve applied for food stamps and now have a case manager helping me get on a housing list and get Poppy registered as a service animal so that we’re protected from being split up [by the Federal Housing Act].

People comment about how I shouldn’t be on the street with a dog. But they probably have a misconception that she’s not being cared for. Twice a month, the Union Gospel Mission does free pet care. I feed her at specific times with foods the vet has told me will keep her healthy. I get money for her food from panhandling. She’s literally with me 24–7. She wakes up so excited every morning and gets so happy about the littlest thing, like rolling around in the grass or even just the weather being nice. Seeing her like that reminds me to stay comfortable with simple things too. In my mind, she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I held her.

Kate Fraser Daley, 39, Portland, Oregon

Kate Fraser Daley with her dog Tenny and daughter in Portland, Oregon
Kate Fraser Daley with her dog, Tenny, and her daughter in Portland, Oregon. Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian

When my family became homeless last June, some of the time we had Tenny, our four-year-old chihuahua-terrier mix, with us, and some of the time he was with friends of the family. But he was so sad when we were apart. There were times when he wouldn’t eat and just wanted to sleep. His happy-go-lucky self wasn’t there.

We’d been in the same apartment for 10 years, so the change was hard on everyone. We decided to send our two cats, Snowflake and Mittens, to another friend’s house. Within the first week, Snowflake got out and ran away. My husband was heartbroken. A year on, and just mentioning her name is still very emotional for him. Mittens passed away when our friends moved.

Tenny the dog
Kate Fraser Daley: ‘I said to my husband: “We don’t give up on our family.”’ Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian /homeless people

It’s unfair to him

When we moved into a shelter, Tenny became highly protective of us. Being part of a mobile family unit is difficult for a dog because everywhere becomes their territory to protect and there’s no actual home. We’re in a 25-family shelter at the moment. All the families sleep on bunks in one large room, and we can only be there from 6 pm to 8 am. But Tenny is never satisfied with our surroundings. His barking has become incessant and he’s being snippety. I don’t think he will calm down until we get back into an apartment. Then he won’t have to be running all over town trying to freakishly protect his family from the world, which is not a dog’s job.‘I cried all night’: homeless women on their first night on the streets

I know it’s unfair on him. We try to give him all our love and help him work through it. My husband and I talked about whether we will have to take him back to the pound. We can’t afford a lawsuit and don’t want to risk being put down if he bites somebody. But I told my husband: “We don’t give up on our family.” We’re working on getting into an apartment and will see how he calms down when he has his own space to protect again.

Richard Dyer, 52, Seattle

Richard Dyer with his pet ferrets Ricky and Tiny in Seattle, Washington
Richard Dyer with his pet ferrets Ricky and Tiny in Seattle. Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian /about homeless people

My two ferrets are called Ricky and Tiny. I’ve had Ricky for five years. I rescued him when I saw somebody walking him on the street and yanking him around on a chain. And I’ve had Tiny for almost three years and rescued him after someone threw him out in the woods. They were both skittish at first because of how they had been treated, but now they’re leash- and litter box trained.

I had wanted ferrets as pets since I was a kid. I grew up in Fort Payne, Alabama, and we had them on our land, but they were so fast you could never catch them.

I’ve been homeless for over a year; it’s not the first time, but it’s the first time in a long time. My wife and I lived in an apartment, and the rent went up by $150. We couldn’t afford it and didn’t have any place to go, so we had no option. Right now we’re staying in a tent. I come downtown when the ferrets are out of food.

Richard Dyer with his pet ferrets Ricky and Tiny in Seattle, Washington
Richard Dyer: ‘They come up to me every time I call and Tiny is always on my heels, he never lets me out of his sight.’ Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian homeless people


Most shelters don’t allow animals. But I wouldn’t subject my family to one anyway – they are full of drugs, disease, and lice. We’re in a sanctioned camp supported by several agencies and have electricity. We pay $60 monthly to be there, and our neighbors at the center love the ferrets.

A while ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder] and was suicidal. But since having these ferrets, I haven’t had any suicidal tendencies. They ease my stress. They come to me every time I call, and Tiny is always on my heels. He never lets me out of his sight. My favorite thing about them is how they play with each other. They can’t be apart from each other; their bond is magnificent.

Ryan Mikesell, 37, Hillsboro, Oregon

Ryan Mikesell lives with his pets in an RV parked in Hillsboro, Oregon
Ryan Mikesell lives with his pets in an RV parked in Hillsboro, Oregon. Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian /homeless people

When I’m overwhelmed by anxiety, my mini Labradoodle, Josie, climbs on my chest to calm me down. She won’t take no for an answer. She’ll say, “Go ahead, tell me to get off. I don’t care.” I have PTSD and her doing that is a grounding mechanism for me. We feel things, and she just senses it. She’s like my soulmate in dog form. My therapist loves her.

My animals are my family. The oldest is Jamie, a Jack Russell chihuahua I got eleven years ago when I lived in a house with my ex-partner. Jamie has had two litters, and I’ve kept three of her puppies. I have five dogs and my cat, Buddy, who I found abandoned in an alley nine years ago.‘We met on OkCupid and live in a tent’: homeless couples tell their love stories

I put a call out on Facebook

I’ve been homeless for eight years. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, but my parents were very abusive, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near them, so I left for Oregon. I also have diabetes and need to have a refrigerator, so I can keep eating healthily. It used to be that as long as you regularly moved your vehicle, you could park in many places. But since the new mayor of Portland came into office, you can get a ticket and be towed in 20 minutes. I called out on Facebook to say I needed somewhere to park for six months, and a woman offered me her driveway, which is where I am now.

Ryan Mikesell lives with his pets in an RV parked in Hillsboro, Oregon
Ryan Mikesell: ‘My dogs are my responsibility and there’s no way I would get rid of any one of them.’ Photograph: Annabel Clark/The Guardian / homeless people

The responsibility of caring for my pets keeps me alive sometimes. Jamie gave birth to her second litter in the motorhome. Feeding them made her sick, and I had to take over with a bottle. It took me an hour to feed all five puppies, and I had to do it every other hour throughout the day and night. It was crazy exhausting and lasted a couple of months. My friends tried to help, but the puppies wouldn’t eat for anyone else but me. I think they were imprinted because I was at the birth.


We all sleep on my bed together. They each have their place and like to take turns on the pillow next to me. Jamie always has preferences because she’s the boss; everyone respects her. They’ve each got such different personalities. Josie is the icebreaker when we meet new people. I spend so much time with them that I’ve learned much about their mannerisms. I can tell what they’re thinking, and I often get my friends laughing by pretending to do their voices.

What about healthcare financing credit cards for emergency veterinary bills? It’s paid off right now, and I freak out at the thought of another account. But my dogs are my responsibility, and there’s no way I would get rid of them.

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