It's been proven time and time again that a pet can provide a smorgasbord of health benefits. It can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk of allergies. It also helps manage depression.
They're also great soothers for the soul. They offer endless love and comfort and help us feel safe. So it's no surprise that many homeless people across Australia have pet dogs and cats at their side. But given that homeless people struggle to keep themselves fed - research has shown that the average homeless person eats only 14 meals a week - it can be a struggle to feed two mouths.
Yvonne Hong founded the charity in 2015 after spending several years volunteering at soup kitchens. After self-funding supplies and using social media to share stories about the people and their pets she was helping out, donations began pouring in. Today, there are now more than 50 drop-off locations across Victoria.
She says the unconditional love and support that pets provide to vulnerable people cannot be underestimated.
Hong says, "Their pets are like their family, they often have no one else who is with them all the time and provides that love and companionship without any judgement."
There isn't data on how many homeless people have pets in Australia, but in the US, one charity estimates the local figure is as high as 24 per cent.
Hong, who has two dogs and two cats herself, says that since POTH started, it has provided more than 160,000 meals to pets in need.
"Their pets are like their family, they often have no one else who is with them all the time and provides that love and companionship without any judgement."
She explains that providing food for pets helps homeless people focus on eating nutritious food for themselves because many homeless people prioritise feeding their pets.
"There was a food pantry that we approached for them to distribute pet food and they initially said no. Then one day, the man who runs this food pantry saw a gentleman sleeping on the doorsteps of a church and he had a dog with him, and he saw him opening a can of soup and instead of eating it himself, he was feeding it to his dog," Hong says.
"He could see that pets were so important that people would rather feed their pets before they did anything to help themselves."
Since POTH started, it has expanded to offering veterinary support and emergency boarding. Because most emergency accommodations and support services don't allow pets, many homeless people have been forced to choose between having a roof over their head and their beloved pets. Given the enormous benefits that having a pet provides, many choose to stay by their pets' side, even if it means staying on the street or in their car.
Launch Housing, which provides support and housing options for homeless people across Victoria, states that "pets tend to encourage higher rates of positive social interactions as well as help people when they are feeling isolated".
Earlier this year, POTH took on its first employee to coordinate the charity’s first warehouse to store and distribute pet food and other supplies.
"Previously, it was being done out of my house and we were quite limited with what we could do. The pet food bank coordinator liaisons with other community organisations to get pet food and supplies to the people who need it."
Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres over three consecutive nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm. The show will be available at SBS On Demand after the broadcast, including in subtitled Simplified Chinese and Arabic.
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