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Creature Comforts: Animal Bonds and Homelessness - a conversation with Yvonne Hong and Jess Heerde

We talk animal magic with Yvonne Hong, Pets of the Homeless CEO, and Associate Professor Jess Heerde, from the University of Melbourne.

Pets are a huge part of many people’s lives. What makes our relationships with animals so important?

 Jess: The human–animal bond is so remarkable. I believe it’s that constant companionship, the unconditional love you get from a pet. Having someone who’s always happy to see you, gives you physical affection. A confidante who won’t reveal your secrets. All of that’s especially valuable for people experiencing vulnerability.

Yvonne: Animals provide comfort and connection we can’t always get from other people. They’re non-judgemental. When I’ve had a bad day, I get home, and my animals come running towards me… Nobody else greets you with a wagging tail! And if everything in your life is uncertain – you don’t know where you’ll sleep tonight, can’t rely on family or friends – then your pet is your one constant.

What sparked your interest in homelessness – and how do animals fit into the picture?

Yvonne: When I lived in the city, I’d always meet rough sleepers who had pets. I tried to find an organisation that was helping both the people and their animals, so I could volunteer. But there was nothing.

So I started Pets of The Homeless. Our mission is to keep vulnerable people and their pets together by providing essential pet care during times of hardship. We help cover vet care costs and foster pets when owners are temporarily unable to care for them. And our pet foodbank distributes about 40,000 meals every month across Victoria.

Jess: I’ve worked with young people most of my career, first in the education sector, then in the philanthropic sector. I noticed housing insecurity was a big issue. Now my research focuses on young people and how homelessness impacts their health and wellbeing. As a society, how can we effectively prevent homelessness? Once people come out of that situation, how can we best deal with the ongoing impacts?

I met Melanie Jones, a psychologist who also trains therapy dogs, and we ran a pilot program with a youth homelessness service. The room had beanbags, dog treats, agility equipment, and the young people could drop in. When the dogs greeted them, you’d see their faces light up.


Can you share some memorable moments you’ve witnessed in your work?

Jess: Some young people had left their pets behind and really missed that connection. Some were dealing with mental health issues. For them, the dogs had a really calming effect. They told us, “The dogs make me feel safe and calm,” and “The dogs keep my paranoia and anxiety at bay.” For others, it was about interaction. They’d teach the dogs tricks – shake hands, jump through a hoop. Then they might show another young person how to train the dog. So they were connecting through the dogs.

Yvonne: One lady had left home due to domestic violence and was sleeping in the car with her two cats. Another family became homeless after a house fire. They were all living their car, including their cats. We took the cats into foster care and sent the owners regular updates, and photos. Once they found secure housing, they reunited with their pets. Those kids were so happy!

What challenges does homelessness pose for the people you work with?

Jess: They’re likely to feel a sense of loneliness and isolation, disconnection from society, and shame and stigma about their situation. There can be depression, other mental health issues and general health issues as a result.

They might be couch-surfing or staying with friends, but they don’t want to overextend their welcome, so they keep moving around. It’s very transient: no stability, no predictability. All that makes schooling really hard, which has flow-on effects for their education and employment.

Homelessness means they are at risk of violence and victimisation. They may not have eaten for days. There’s nowhere to shower, wash their hair, brush their teeth. Everything we take for granted; that’s all taken away from them.

Yvonne: We work with anyone who’s in a vulnerable position – homeless or at risk. Most crisis accommodation doesn’t accept pets, so people are forced to choose between keeping their pet or surrendering it forever. People are not willing to part with their pets, so that makes it difficult for them to access safe shelters.

Photo: Bruno Guerrero

What’s something you wish more people understood?

Yvonne: When someone’s sleeping rough, people are more likely to stop and interact if they have a pet. The person doesn’t feel so invisible and alone. When you see someone who’s sleeping rough without a pet – make eye contact, so they feel seen.

Jess: We don’t expect a lot from young people who’ve experienced homelessness. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations – we only expect them to get to here in life (gestures low). But what if they want to get to here? (gestures high). Let’s remove our low expectations. Let’s support them to get to where they want to go.

Interviews and write-up by Meg Mundell.

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