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If We Treated Humans like Dogs.

HoneyBy Maria Usacheva

In view of concerns raised about a proposed homeless shelter in Davis I’d like to share this piece that I wrote a while ago but never shared with anyone. I think it’s time. The issue of homelessness is much more complex than what I could ever depict in this extremely oversimplified essay. I also believe that all feelings and attitudes toward the homeless are valid, as they are culturally- and experience-based. So, the only reason I’m sharing this essay is to offer another perspective.

If We Treated Humans like Dogs.

If we treated homeless humans as we treat homeless dogs we would:

- use “If you are cold, they are cold. Bring them in!” philosophy;

- routinely donate to homeless organizations;

- have a thrift store that benefits the homeless;

- have events to raise awareness and charity for the homeless;

- advocate for and build homeless shelters in every town;

- ensure that all homeless that can be off the streets are off the streets and have a shelter above their head, 3 meals a day, medical attention, shower access, and socialization;

- make sure shelter homeless have normal beds and furniture so they don’t feel like they have to stay on the cold floor (I’ve seen shelters ensuring dogs have furniture such as beds and armchairs);

- have people routinely volunteer at the homeless shelters, including our kids;

- kids/youth volunteers would read to the homeless;

- volunteers would walk/eat with the homeless;

- create and share pulling-at-your-heart strings commercials/videos meant to make you see the struggles of the homeless and want to volunteer/donate/foster;

- screen everyone for trauma and do risk assessment;

- have foster families willing to take in those who would do well and would like to live in a family setting while they are getting back on their feet;

- placements would always take into account existing bonds between the humans;

- shelter-based socialization processionals would work daily with the shelter population (read “clinicians” and “social workers”) to rehabilitate / teach social skills/ teach independent living skills to those able/willing to be reintegrated back into the community;

- have sanctuaries with shelter/food/medical attention/sanitary conditions for those who have become so disaffiliated that they are not interested or able to be reintegrated into the community;

- those who are willing would have their own web pages with a description of their personalities, likes and dislikes, and what they are looking for/need, to match them to volunteers or foster families (less as an SPCA website with available dogs and more like a dating website with individual profiles);

- their kids would get spoiled with presents and being taken out to art galleries, theaters, and fairs; - their kids will have volunteers to play with them, read to them daily, and help them with homework;

- help with transportation by volunteers;

- donations of clothing, food items, hygiene items, and fun things to do in the free pastime! Get to know each person and what they’d enjoy, like we take care to get to know shelter dogs and what games they like;

- have organizations working to prevent homelessness in an aggressive, proactive manner, like we do to prevent abandonment or surrender of animals by offering free training and support to their humans. Existing prevention services for the homeless are not proactive - the person has to meet very stringent criteria to receive very limited help, and they have to be high-functioning to be able to navigate this system;

- have homeless advocates that would help them get benefits they qualify for;

- be okay with the fact that humans, like dogs, have basic needs, such as clean water and a place to relieve themselves even when they are homeless;

- understand and be okay with the fact that they may not observe social norms, etc. - all the things we take as a given when we think of shelter dogs and we use problem-solving approach with animals but shaming with humans;

- overall change of mindset from “they are dangerous, dirty, and uneducated” to the way we think of dogs in shelters - “every dog deserves to be safe and to be loved”;

- individualized approach: this dog has anxiety, so here are the ways to interact with it that don’t stress it out. This dog is depressed. This dog is a “fear-biter”, - he may attack because he is scared and not because he is mean. This dog does well with puppies but needs to be socialized with other adult dogs. This one needs this certain behavior shaped to make it successful in a family/community;

- on this note, I absolutely admire our SPCA. It has excellent resources and holds orientations/workshops for teaching humans to read the non-verbal language of dogs and to adapt their communication style to not stress them out but to gradually earn their trust. They also teach that many negative behaviors come out when dogs are sick, abused, have MH issues, or even just bored, and they have ways to counter that! I’ve heard they have volunteers responsible for picking out fish so the cats can watch it and not be bored. Imagine if we had this patience and dedication in earning trust of fellow humans! We could do better with humans, with all the scientific and practical knowledge we have. These are our own species! We can hold orientations for homeless shelter volunteers that would teach them these different levels of needs and practical knowledge of addressing them, where you have to “grow” into each new level.

The homeless are not a homogenous population. We have homeless veterans, homeless families with kids, pregnant homeless, homeless youth, trafficked homeless (do we know the signs or what to do if you spot them?), homeless with mental health issues, physical disabilities, disaffiliated homeless, homeless students, homeless seniors. These categories are overlapping, but also have distinct needs. Even then, virtually all homeless are a highly victimized population with extensive traumatic backgrounds and often with PTSD.

I wrote this, obviously, not to equate homeless to dogs, and certainly not to say that we should stop advocating for homeless animals. I chose dogs because in our culture people tend to humanize (anthropomorphize) dogs more so than other pets, because dogs were bread to exhibit certain behaviors to “appeal” to humans and to be effective companions.

While many of us do volunteer and donate to the homeless, I wrote this to highlight that overall, the culture in our society is such, that we treat the homeless humans vastly different from homeless pets, because of the concept of “personal responsibility”. We believe that they are like us, and if they are homeless, it’s the result of their actions and choices, or flaws in their personal characteristics, despite much research pointing to the systemic inequalities, personal vulnerabilities, trauma, and sometimes, downright bad luck that lead to disenfranchising and stigma, which then become barriers to getting back up.

I think, culturally, we want to hold on to that picture of the “just world”, in which everyone has “personal responsibility” and deserves what they get. We continue to apply negative attribution biases to this population, because it makes us feel like WE are better, more hard-working, honest, etc., and that could never happen to us or our kids. But is there evidence of this approach being fruitful? Indeed, if we treated homeless dogs as we do homeless humans, it’s doubtful we could achieve legal and other protections for our pets or provide them with good quality of life. We’d likely have packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, carrying disease and attacking children. So, maybe a shift of perspective in regard to tackling the homeless problem is due? What if being driven by compassion and respect before “justice” would lead to a world where we won’t have to worry as much about the homeless bringing crime and disease near our children? Could we consciously work on repairing broken connections and taking care of the most vulnerable in our own communities? With all the power and knowledge that we have to offer, could we empower those who need it the most? I guess, time will tell...

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