Life

'It's their family': How homeless people with dogs got through the pandemic

The Big Issue spent the afternoon with charity Dogs On The Streets to discover how rough sleepers and their pets navigated lockdown.

Dogs on the Streets founder Michelle Clark

Dogs on the Streets founder Michelle Clark knows that “dogs are more than a possession”. Image: Andy Parsons

When lockdown hit in March 2020, thousands of rough sleepers were offered hotel rooms and temporary accommodation. But it came at a price. Because a large number of places didn’t allow pets, leaving owners with an unthinkable decision during that time of intense uncertainty as the virus seized the country: choose between a bed or your pet. 

Michelle Clark, founder of Dogs On The Streets, thinks about it often.  

“We worked with services to take dogs in during this time,” she recalls. “I remember being called to Victoria
[station, in Central London] and when I pulled up, men and women were crying. They were so scared. I realised that, because they didn’t have access to TV and radios, they didn’t know what was going on. They were panic-stricken. 

“And then their dogs had to come with us. They were petrified. That will always stick in my mind. Always.” 

Given that animals play such an imperative role in their owners’ lives on the streets, it’s unsurprising many rough sleepers with pets rejected animal-free lodgings. Today, dog-friendly hostels are still limited, forming a barrier to accessing support and a safe place to sleep if it means giving up their pet. “No chance,” regular Dogs on the Streets client Damo tells us. 

Dogs on the Streets (DOTS) supports homeless people and their four-legged friends at all levels, and did so even through the lockdowns, whether it’s providing food and harnesses or training and grooming. They also run a mobile veterinary van providing access to treatment and medication, while their Dog Champions Scheme encourages more hostels to turn pet-friendly.  

Clark and her team of volunteers understand too well the impact dogs have.

“It’s their family, full stop,” she tells us. “Dogs are more than a possession. They are mental therapy, they are support. These dogs are their lifeline. And these dogs and the owners have gone through some of the most horrific times, but they remain tight and bonded for life.”

Dogs on the Streets
Damo and Gypsy. Image: Andy Parsons

Damo and Gypsy

“I’m an Irish traveller. Seventeen-and-a-half years ago, I’m fighting this fella for money and I see this little dog who’s being made to fight. I win my fight and tell them they can keep the purse, but the dog’s coming with me. My lady has been with me ever since. 

“You can’t explain the bond you have with a dog when you’re homeless, you’ve got to be there to understand it. It’s why I’m on the streets. If I went to a hostel, no dogs are allowed. Do you think I’m going to give her up just so I can sleep in a warm bed? No chance. It doesn’t work like that. I’d rather sleep on cardboard and cuddle up to her. 

“When the lockdown came, that came down heavy on the homeless people. Every day’s a Sunday, no one’s about. And we’re out here freezing. Two years that’s been going on. 

“Winter’s here now, and it’s going to be hard. The clocks have gone back, so it’s darker earlier. Being on the street in the dark, people don’t stop and talk to you. The wind is blowing and the rain is coming down, they want to get home quickly to their warm place. We haven’t got that. But we have got each other. 

“She’s got arthritis in her back legs, and so she comes here to get injections. Dogs can’t talk – and if Gypsy could, she could grass me up on some stories – but this charity speaks up for them. They know when they’re in pain, they know when they’re ill. People who go out of their way to do that, you can’t put words on that. 

“This is my life, and I’m sharing it with my little girl. I wouldn’t change that for the world.” 

Dogs on the Streets
Ray and Spike. Image: Andy Parsons

Ray and Spike

“I’ve always had dogs. I’ve had Spike since he was just five weeks. He’s 14 now. That’s a long time to spend with anyone. He’s got me through a lot over the years, but the last couple of years have been tough, very tough.

“I was in a hostel at the time when the pandemic first started. As soon as lockdown finished, they started kicking everyone out. I was able to go into the hostel with Spike because that hostel allowed dogs. But there are not many that do.

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“It’s much harder to find accommodation when you’ve got a dog. A lot harder. And now it’s winter, it’s not nice. But it’s not like picking between a bed for the night or staying with Spike, because I’d rather stay with him. It’s not a choice. He’s my companion. He’s family. He is good for my mental health, but he is a constant worry. 

“I just want him to be alright. Whether he’s got food or his medication. Silly little things that make a huge difference. But there is a good point to it, the bond we’ve got I wouldn’t trade for anything. 

“Unfortunately, Spike has cancer. He’s got to have a biopsy. He’s able to come here every other Sunday and get checked over and get medication. They’re brilliant. He always likes coming here on a Sunday, because there are lots of other dogs for him to meet. 

“His favourite thing is just being out. He doesn’t like being inside. We spent more time outside than inside. People are more likely to say hello or chat to me because of Spike. In the past, I was in prison, and if I hadn’t had Spike, I think I’d have probably ended back there. He’s a very special dog.” 

Dogs on the Streets
Russell and Zeno. Image: Andy Parsons

Russell and Zeeno

“I lost my dog Goldie last October to throat cancer. It had been aggressive, and saying goodbye to him after he’d been with me for so long broke my heart. I was devastated. I had Goldie since he was one, and so we were together for eight years. He was such a beauty and such a good boy. I loved him very much. 

“Last Christmas, the lady at Dogs on the Streets said they had a dog that was the same size, same gender, and almost the same breed, and they were looking to rehome him. They had known me for a long time with Goldie and knew how sad I’d been, and they knew how well I’d taken care of him, so at Christmas they introduced me to Zeeno.  

“I owe this charity everything. The last time I was here, Zeeno had a swollen mouth and his neck was swollen and it was growing, I was terrified it was throat cancer again. But the vet at Dogs on the Streets checked him over and it was only an infection. So they gave him an injection and some tablets and he’s getting better. I was so relieved. They saved him. 

“I’ve been housed in Greenwich [in south-east London], and they don’t mind dogs, thank god. But I know I’m lucky in that respect. I would say the pandemic has been tough, of course. But we’re all getting through it. It hasn’t been much different for us because we don’t go to workplaces or businesses. But everybody went through it, didn’t they? 

“Everyone has someone important to them, and Zeeno is that to me. I’m a refugee from Iran, and I can’t go back there. You might have a girlfriend or you might have family members you can see regularly, but all I have is this dog. We’re inseparable.” 

Steve and Tara. Image: Andy Parsons

Steve and Tara

“I’ve had Tara for nearly two years. Her original owner was my friend who sadly passed away in my hostel, so I’ve been taking care of her ever since. I’d take her out for walks when he was ill, so we bonded then. And she’s the best thing I’ve ever had. 

“She’s helped me with my mental health. I’m schizophrenic, and when I’m struggling with my condition I just concentrate on her, and she helps get me out of it. I’ve tried to take my own life in the past. But now I’ve got her I’ve got something to live for. She’s a real leveller for me.  

“It’s much harder to get housed when you’ve got a dog. A lot of places don’t take pets. There need to be more places in hostels for people with dogs. Dogs are for life. They’re your partner. You’re not going to give them up just to go in somewhere. That would break my heart. That’s not fair. 

“Even in the lockdown, places didn’t change their minds about letting dogs in. If my hostel didn’t allow dogs, I’d have stayed on the street. I wouldn’t ever leave her. This will be my fifth Christmas in my hostel, but I’m hoping next year I can move out and get my own place with a garden. I think she’d love a garden. 

“These guys at Dogs on the Streets mean a lot to me. I get her medication and dog food from them. She’s my pride and joy, and they help me take care of her. She rolls around on her back when she’s happy and she does it all the time with the vets here. She’s 10 this year, so she needs a bit more help these days, but I’d be lost without her. She’s changed my life.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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