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International Dog Day: The street vets helping homeless people and their pets

The bond between homeless people and their dogs can be life-saving. Here are five charities helping to keep dogs healthy on the street

The bond between dog owners and their treasured pets is an unshakeable one and that bond is rightly celebrated on International Dog Day.

The partnership has particular poignance for people experiencing homelessness. The companionship, company and loyalty a dog offers can be life-changing when loneliness and isolation is often an everyday reality.

At The Big Issue, we know just how much our vendors’ value their canine companions. Take Geezer, for example, who has joined Plymouth seller Clive on stage and where they were honoured with a pink plaque in Plymouth.

Or how Tinks and Lola kept Weston-super-mare seller Robin Price company during lockdown. Or how Truro vendor Nick Cuthbert describes his dog Bryony as “his life”. 

Sign our petition to #StopMassHomelessness

But looking after a pet dog is not easy while experiencing homelessness. It can be difficult to afford vet bills to keep up canine companions fit and healthy while securing accommodation can also mean parting ways with pets.

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Charities around the UK are working to solve these barriers. Here’s five animal charities helping homeless people to stay with their pets across the country on this International Dog Day.

Dogs on the Streets

Dogs on the Streets (DotS) launched in London almost a decade ago to break down the barriers for homeless people to secure veterinary care. Since then, the charity has helped around 800 people without a permanent home to look after their treasured pets, according to founder Michelle Clark.

Clark started DOTs after spotting a rough sleeper and his dog on the street – since then she has worked to help similar duos to stay healthy, stay together and to prevent street homelessness.

The venture started off as a “mini Pets at Home” set up on the Strand in London and giving rough sleepers access to the essentials to look after their pets, said Clark. But now DotS has grown to include a mobile vet surgery and a 24/7 vet practice.

In the last year alone, it has funded almost 100,000 of vet bills to help homeless people keep their dogs fit and healthy.

But it is the impact of the pandemic and the experiences of homeless people through the Everyone In scheme that has strengthened the resolve to prevent people falling into homelessness.

“I actually got Covid twice, but in between that I have worked every single day during the whole pandemic,” said Clark. “I’ll never forget the day when they called to St Mungo’s in Victoria to help get people off the street and into hotel accommodation. And it will haunt me to this day seeing even grown men because we were called to come and get the dogs – it was the most distressing scene I’ve ever seen.”

Clark told The Big Issue DotS is already seeing rising demand as families are threatened with eviction but the charity is dedicated to preventing street homelessness and maintaining the bond between people experiencing homelessness and their pets.

Clark added: “The heart of everything we do isn’t just about the dogs, it’s about the owners as well because they come as a pair, they’re a partnership.”

StreetVet

“One of our biggest goals as a charity is to keep the person and their animal together,” StreetVet general manager Zoe Abbotts told The Big Issue.

It is all too often the case that homeless people are put in the position where they are forced to choose whether to accept a place to stay, which would also mean giving up their canine companion. Barriers such as landlords who are not pet-friendly or a lack of training or facilities among staff at hostels or other shared accommodation can mean people have no choice but to stay on the street.

StreetVet, launched by vets Jade Statt and Sam Joseph in 2016 to provide free veterinary care on the street, wants to end that decision for good.

Last year, it launched its Accredited Hostel Scheme after the charity’s plans wowed judges at pet food maker Purina’s BetterwithPets prize to earn the £40,000 award.

Since then, the charity has been working with The Elms hostel in Hemel Hempstead to fine tune their offering, which includes training staff to handle pets, being on hand with free pet food and toys and providing online health consultations.

While Covid has meant the progress has been a “slow burner”, Abbotts told The Big Issue StreetVet will be working with more hostels by the end of the year.

The team-ups come as the charity is seeing a shift in the people who are requiring their help, going beyond rough sleepers.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in new clients coming to us for help.” added Abbotts. “They’re the next stage up, they’re people who are right on the poverty line, who are in housing, that literally have nothing else and all their money goes on affording their rent and they are visiting food banks.” 

Dogs Trust

National charity Dogs Trust has been running its Hope Project for more than 25 years to support dogs who are experiencing homelessness or facing a housing crisis.

That means offering free vet treatment to dogs with homeless owners across 114 towns and cities across the UK, covering both essential care and preventative treatment. During the pandemic in 2020, Dogs Trust vets helped 347 dogs with free vet care through the project.

The charity has also teamed up with homelessness charity Simon Community in Scotland to help accommodation providers take on dogs so homeless owners do not face the agonising decision of whether to part with their pet companion to find a place to stay. The Welcoming Dogs scheme gives accommodation providers advice and resources to ensure they are able to accept dogs. 

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Cat Birt is Dogs Trust’s pets and housing development and engagement officer – a unique role that sees her with one foot in the animal welfare world and one in the homelessness sector to help remove the barriers into housing.

She told The Big Issue that the Scottish government-backed role is vital to efforts to end rough sleeping and there are now plans to bring the project to England and Wales.

“For people experiencing homelessness, the relationship with a pet can be the most important, stable and loving relationship that somebody has had in their whole life,” said Birt. 

“The Scottish government has got a clear aim to end rough sleeping in Scotland. And if we want to end rough sleeping, we need to break down those barriers. So people can access emergency and temporary and move-on accommodation with their pet. That whole pathway is really, really important for pet owners.”

Vets in the Community

Unusually, Vets in the Community can chart its beginnings to the world of academia.

Students from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science were instrumental in launching the charity in 2012 and have carried out well over 2,000 consultations on pets of homeless and vulnerably housed people ever since.

Hundreds of veterinary students from the university have provided free care to treasured pets at fortnightly clinics and were joined by students from neighbouring Nottingham Trent University in 2019.

Just before the pandemic broke out, the charity was primed to launch their new purpose-built trailer to hold mobile clinics across Nottingham and its surrounding areas following a two-year, £30,000 fundraising campaign.

Dr Jenny Stavisky, a clinical assistant professor in the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, said the project was vital to “reach more people in need”.

Covid-19’s disruption to universities has seen the charity unable to hold its regular clinics for large parts of the pandemic but volunteers have focused efforts on fundraising to provide food and medications for clients to keep their dogs fed and healthy instead.

Streetpaws

Streetpaws launched in Newcastle in 2016 to offer veterinary care and support services for pets and their homeless owners.

In the five years since, the charity has spread quickly across the UK with monthly outreach operations across the north-east and north-west of England as well as Yorkshire, Wales and Northern Ireland. The charity has even joined forces with fellow charity Dogs on the Streets to continue its rapid expansion and to help the rising number of people on the streets in recent years.

The charity has a number of schemes to help homeless owners keep their dogs healthy and to stay together. The Dog Champions scheme supports hostels and accommodation providers to become more pet friendly, giving them the tools to accept homeless people alongside their pets.

Streetpaws also recognises the impact the loss of a pet can have on a person experiencing homelessness. The charity’s Paws and Remember fund helps people who have experienced a loss to create a tribute fund in their pets pooch’s memory to make a lasting memorial in their honour.

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes right now. One UK household is made homelessevery three-and-a-half hours.

You can help stop a potential avalanche of homelessness by joining The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Here’s how:

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