Invisible People, Invisible Dogs
‘Dogs should not dream. They should never dream. The hand of a man passing me on the sidewalk accidentally brushes against my ribs and a memory comes back so fast that I can do nothing…it flattens me.’
John Berger: King A Street Story.
My partner goes off to Oxford every couple of weeks for work, where he encounters many rough sleepers with dogs. I always call him and ask about them. ‘Did you see the collie?’ ‘Did you take enough change?’ I find myself worrying about them. There’s snow forecast and they must be freezing.
Alex tells me they were fine. As much as you can define living on the streets as ‘fine.’ By ‘fine’ we mean the people and dogs were relatively healthy, all things considered. One of the men he sees has a collie. We’d recently been looking after a very reactive and scared collie, so my partner and the homeless man bonded over a love of the breed. ‘I’d never go back,’ the man said. ‘It’s a collie or nothing. Who’d want a stupid dog?’ I could never agree that any dog is ‘stupid,’ but I completely understand his love of collies. We live in a rural area bounding with them. Their restlessness and alertness is so compelling.
I manage to speak to Michelle Clark, founder of Dogs on The Streets (DOTS), a charity working with homeless people and dogs and the first of its kind in the UK. She has some time to talk to me, in between various emergencies that she attends to. Her strong rapport with rough sleepers is a huge bonus to her work. She says that she recently adopted a collie (called Broc—short for Broccoli!) from Oxford, ‘as you do’ she laughs. His owner had died and a fellow rough sleeper tried to look after Broc but found it too difficult. Broc was fifteen and in great shape, but is taking a while to adapt to living in a house with a new owner after so long living outside.
I wonder whether Broc is the same collie my partner got to know. It’s likely that the rough sleepers that my partner meets are the same people that Michelle helps. Dogs on the Streets staff work across a huge area: all of London, Chatham in Kent, Oxford, Bournemouth, Milton Keynes, Dundee and Norwich. In London, rough sleepers are more isolated, and spread out, says Michelle, but in the smaller city of Oxford, people and their dogs meet up and more sociable. This has some advantages for the dogs as well as for their people. Dogs who live on the streets are very well socialized with people, often meeting hundreds of different people every day, who lean over them, pet them or accidentally step on them. In Oxford, they also become socialised with other dogs, having time to interact and play.
Homelessness on the Rise
For seven years I worked in the mental health services, which also gave me an insight into some of the related issues around homelessness. I learned how precarious life can be for some people. One wrong turn, one illness, a couple of missed rent payments, a redundancy or marriage breakup and a person’s life can spin out of control, often resulting in loss of housing.
In Britain homelessness is rising. A mix of policies over the last decade or so, are adding to the strain. Housing benefit for young people is being scrapped, domestic violence shelters are closing, the foster care system is under immense pressure from public sector cuts and social care budgets are being slashed. At the same time, new social, and affordable housing is not being built fast enough. My daughter recently asked me how much a house might cost in London – when I searched I was surprised to find a property valued at £20,000. A closer look showed us this was actually just a parking space! The average price of a flat in London is now over half a million pounds and rising by 7% each year. This is at the same time as salaries are decreasing in real terms, students are leaving university with much higher levels of debt and precarious, zero hours work contracts are becoming a new normal.
Inevitably, against this backdrop people are increasingly becoming homeless. And when people lose their homes, so do their pets. What happens to these pets? Sometimes they are given away to friends, or to animal shelters, but often they end up living on the streets with their owner. Life on the streets can be dangerous and lonely for people. Michelle from Dogs on the Streets says that homelessness is often ‘a life of solitude for people – just a person, their rucksack and a sleeping bag.’ And sometimes their dog. The reasons people keep dogs whilst living on the streets are complex, and homeless people are often subjected to unhelpful judgements about their situation.
Dogs As Family: ‘My Dog Always Eats First.’
Leslie Irvine, author of ‘My Dog Always Eats First’ begins her book describing how she unfairly judged a homeless man who was begging for money near a gas station. In her recounting, she tries to buy his dog from him, and is annoyed when he becomes angry and tells her to leave him alone; that his dog is just fine:
‘I thought he was doing something wrong. It was nothing I could put my finger on, no mistake he could correct. It troubled us that such a man had a dog. We felt sure he could not provide proper care. We believed that the dog could have a better life. For us that life would have meant four walls, a roof, and even a yard. For the young man on the median, a good life for a dog meant freedom, the outdoors, and constant companionship.’
Irvine’s book goes on to record the personal narratives of homeless people in relation to their dogs. What comes across strongly is how much dogs are considered family. Whilst ‘dogs as family’ is a common theme in general, it takes on more emphasis in the narratives of homeless people. For house dwellers a dog is another being that inhabits the family home. For people living on the streets, however, a dog is a 24/7 companion and the bond is often closer. Home and family isn’t necessarily represented by a house. For a dog, whilst shelter from bad weather is important, a house is largely irrelevant.
The woman in the Channel Four film, Dogs on the Street: How four legged friends help the homeless, says of her dog: ‘People laugh at me, when I say she’s like my daughter.’ Another man, Andy, says of his dog Bailey: ‘More than anything it’s company. It’s having another heartbeat that’s on your side.’ What we see in the film are deep bonds between dogs and people on the street. As one of the vets says, the relationship between them, in comparison to home dwellers and their dogs, is ‘more complex, intense and profound.’
One recurring theme from the stories in Irvine’s book is that the dogs belonging to rough sleepers are sometimes better looked after and happier because they are with their human constantly, unlike many dogs in houses who often experience separation anxiety. Despite the hardships faced on the streets, a dog with a homeless person often has more freedom and companionship than even the most pampered house dog. The man in Irvine’s book, retorts to her:
‘I take good care of my dog. He has a great life. He runs around the forest all the time. He never has to be on a leash until we come here. He’s got food, he’s got water. He never leaves my side.’
According to Irvine, one reason for the emphasis on dogs as ‘family’ for homeless people is that dogs represent a degree of sociability and respectability. They portray part of a person’s identity. Having a dog with you says: look, I’m not an outcast. I’m a person who is approachable and has a relationship. I can look after another being. Dogs also enable people to be literally sociable. It’s easier to approach someone who has a friendly dog with them. Dogs are a talking point. A connection to the rest of the world.
Cynical opinions about homeless people often claim that rough sleepers only have dogs to beg for more money. However, weighing up the fact that a dog prevents all kinds of other benefits, such as access to shelters, food kitchens, shops, it’s hard to see how a dog really provides ‘financial gain.’ The practical drawbacks of having a dog whilst homeless far outweigh the benefits. But the emotional benefits seem to outweigh the practical inconveniences.
What are the Drawbacks for Dogs Who Live on the Streets?
According to The Connection, a charity that works with homeless people, ‘Dogs on the street are generally less healthy. It’s not the right environment for a dog. It’s busy, they don’t relax properly or get the same amount of exercise,’ they say. However this seems to contradict other sources who say that dogs on the streets are more socialized and have more freedom than ‘indoor’ dogs. What constitutes ‘the right environment’ for a dog is pretty subjective. Is it a nighttime crate in a centrally heated living room? A kennel on a farm? A doorway in a city? A sprung mattress next to a human? A tent?
Michelle from Dogs on the Streets tells me that the dogs face some particular health issues. Dental issues because of their diet. Pancreatitis, because of the human diet they often have. They are more likely to be eating food like pizza or pasties that well-meaning people give them. Rough sleepers often give their dogs food before themselves, but this can lead to health issues for the dog. Orthopedic problems can occur because the dogs and people are out in all weather doing a lot of walking which can take its toll on both of them. They can have higher anxiety issues because they may have to be more alert and protective. Being aware of this is vital for teams like Michelle’s who are out there with mobile veterinary surgeries.
However, despite these health drawbacks, the bond is usually strong. Michelle says “People on the street have taught me so much about dogs. Dogs will always follow their homeless person. People who live in houses are often having to chase their dogs—not homeless people—I’ve never seen a rough sleeper having to chase their dog down the street.’
The charities that do this vital work have to be able to connect with homeless people on their turf (so to speak). There are a few charities that offer free veterinary care for dogs, but it’s hard for a rough sleeper to go into a vet surgery and not have even the money to offer a donation. Stigma around homelessness means that dogs are not always getting the care they need. Charities like Dogs on the Streets help solve these issues.
Is Hardship for Homeless People and Dogs an Issue that can be Solved?
Animal welfare and housing are two emotive political footballs in the UK right now. The two main political parties are competing to show they are concerned about animal welfare. The current Conservative government is planning to crack down on puppy farming, for instance, and the opposition party, Labour, is planning measures to make private landlords accept pets, unless there’s a good reason not to: combining the issues of precarious housing, animal welfare and rights to pet ownership. What’s clear is that, as housing becomes less secure, and people are forced to move from home to home, more animals end up in shelters.
I think all this leads to some uncomfortable questions for society to answer. The Connection say that they try to persuade homeless people to ‘rehome’ their dogs, (if they can’t find accommodation for both human and animal) as this is better for the dog. But what’s clear from a lot of Leslie Irvine’s research, and Channel 4 footage of homeless people, is that people would prefer to live a more difficult life on the streets than give up their dog. (Or family member, as they see it). Only 10% of homeless shelters accept pets, so people who don’t want to give up their dog are faced with a harsh choice. If, as The Connection points out, most people on the streets have dogs because they already had a pet when they were made homeless, then what role should society play in ensuring that people and their dogs are kept healthy and safe? And what right do we have to break the bond between people and their dogs?
Whilst it might be true that someone in crises is at risk of not looking after their animal properly, should they be helped and supported, or judged unfit and divided from their companion? These are difficult questions. And it’s clear that they are more likely to be asked of homeless people, probably unfairly. Abuse and neglect of dogs can go on unnoticed behind the walls of a house or the hedges of a private garden. Homeless people and their dogs are on display to the rest of society. They are visible and invisible simultaneously. Visible to judgmental eyes, but also invisible in terms of their needs and their personal history. As the woman in the channel four film answers the questions, whilst cuddling her dog sadly: how did you become homeless? ‘It’s a long story.’
Making the Invisible, Visible, Through True Stories
Maybe human (and dog) stories are part of the answer. Services and policies directed at homeless people and their dogs could evolve as people gain a greater understanding of the lives of the people and animals who are in this situation. Leslie Irvine says that lots of research has been conducted on human-pet relationships, but little about the bond between homeless people and their dogs. She says ‘A…reason for the invisibility of animals in the research on homelessness has to do with the historical failure of the social sciences to recognise the importance of animals in human society.’ Homeless people are not usually in a position to make their stories visible. Apart from a handful of people who caught the public’s attention, like John Dolan and his dog George. There are few who live on the streets whose voices will be heard.
TV and literature sometimes depict an over-romanticised picture of rootless, homeless dogs, as metaphors for freedom. Think the Littlest Hobo, Red Dog and The Call of the Wild. John Berger’s King: A Street Story is an exception, in its brave attempt to tell the story of homelessness through the senses of a dog whose ‘home,’ a makeshift tent-style village next to a motorway, is demolished. But Leslie Irvine’s book and the homeless charities who are documenting the real lives of people and dogs on the street have a key role to play on helping shape societal attitudes toward people and dog relationships on the streets.
Perhaps, through these stories, the bond between a person and their dog will be viewed as important enough to maintain, even though devastating times like homelessness. Perhaps, then, services will change accordingly. More shelters might become equipped to cope with dogs, like this St Mungo’s homeless shelter, and more housing providers might change their ‘no dogs’ policies, to become more animal friendly.
I ask Michelle one last question: What’s the best thing to do if you see a rough sleeper and their dog and want to help?
“Ask them what they need,” says Michelle firmly. “It might be dog food or a coffee. Listen to what they say. They know what they need best. [Rough sleepers] can receive abuse when they aren’t grateful for the things people give them, but sometimes those things are not suitable. At Christmas someone might come and give a person five sleeping bags or something and it just turns into a burden because they can’t carry that much stuff. On a really hot day a couple of bottles of water are useful. People and dogs can get dehydrated in hot weather and may not realise. “
“Say hello and just ask.”
I resolve to do just that next time I see someone on the streets with their dog.
UK Resources for Homeless Pets
The Blue Cross
My Dog is my Home
Dogs on the Steets, Stavrida/Shutterstock.com, Elena Rostunova/Shutterstock.com, Chrispictures/Shutterstock.com, snig/Shutterstock.com, globetrotters/Shutterstock.com.
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