The pet project helping to get rough sleepers in the UK off the streets

In the car park of a soup kitchen not far from Birmingham Moor Street station, a vet and two veterinary nurses are examining a 10-year-old staffordshire bull terrier called Poochie. As the vet touches her back legs, she whimpers and growls and tries to get back to her owner, who is crouched opposite looking concerned. Terry Smith (not his real name) has had Poochie since she was a puppy. When he lost his flat three years ago for reasons he finds too difficult to talk about, she went with him as he became one of 15,500 homeless people in the city. For most of this time the pair have been sleeping rough. “It’s made the world of difference having her. I wouldn’t fancy living on the streets without her,” he says. “When I lost Poochie for two months, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. It’s amazing how close you get.”
Smith was able to be reunited with his beloved Poochie, after she was found and taken in by the RSPCA, because he was offered a hostel place during the pandemic – as part of the government’s push to get rough sleepers off the streets. And he is staying in a hostel that accepts dogs.

Smith says that he would have refused to go into the hostel if it hadn’t taken dogs. “I wouldn’t have gone in if it meant giving her up.”

Poochie comes to see the vet for her arthritis


Poochie comes to see the vet for her arthritis. Photograph: Nicola Slawson/The Guardian
It is estimated that up to 10% of the UK’s homeless population have pets. Yet according to the Dogs Trust fewer than 10% of hostels accept dogs. While some rough sleepers with four-legged friends were given accommodation in caravan parks and dog-friendly hotels as part of the government’s “Everyone In” scheme, others were forced to stay on the streets, unwilling to be parted from their loyal companion.

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This is something StreetVet, the charity that runs makeshift veterinary surgeries for the pets of homeless people, is trying to address. It has devised a hostel accreditation scheme to make homeless hostels pet-friendly. The scheme offers free, accessible veterinary care for hostel residents’ pets, as well as support for hostel managers and staff to adopt and implement pet policies across their sites.

The idea for the accreditation scheme came from talking to the charity’s 650 volunteers.

Jade Statt, a vet and co-founder of StreetVet, says: “We asked them why they originally got involved and what aspect was the most challenging. A lot of them said they first signed up because of the animals but over time it had become about the person. The thing they said they found most challenging was walking away. We all find it really hard that we can’t fix the situation we’re seeing because we can’t fix homelessness.

“What we were all seeing time and time again was our clients being unable to get into a hostel which would then give them the stepping stone to be able to access all the other things they need to help them get off the street. Because they wouldn’t part with their pet, they were missing out.”

StreetVet operates in 16 locations across the UK from Brighton to Glasgow, and Statt explains that its clients say their pets are their lifelines and are often their “one link to their past lives”.
A volunteer holds a rabbit at the Homeless One soup kitchen in Digbeth, Birmingham


A volunteer holds a rabbit at the Homeless One soup kitchen in Digbeth, Birmingham. StreetVet has two rabbits as patients. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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The charity has 1,060 active patients, which includes 397 staffordshire bull terriers like Poochie, 93 cats, two rabbits and one ferret – and these pets provide crucial companionship and a sense of responsibility to people experiencing homelessness in different ways, from people sleeping on a friend’s sofa or living in temporary accommodation to those having to bed down on the streets.

When StreetVet began to look into why so many hostels were refusing pets, it found that in some cases it was because they hadn’t been given dog crates for the dogs to sleep in, and in others it was more to do with health and safety issues, Statt says. The new wraparound service will offer hostels resources, staff training and support including dog starter packs that include a bed, lead and collar, food and a tele-medicine service. The scheme recently won an international competition that supports the bond between humans and animals, sponsored by the pet food manufacturer Purina, which came with a £40,000 prize.
The Elms in Hemel Hempstead is set to become the first accredited hostel after working with StreetVet for the last 18 months. The hostel, operated by the Dens charity, has been a guinea pig for the development of the scheme, says Sean Fitzgerald, the manager of the 44-bedroom hostel. At the moment it has three dogs, and has also had a hamster.

“We changed our policy after seeing the relationship homeless people have with their animal and realising they were staying on the streets when their pet had been refused accommodation. We thought ‘let’s give it a go’ and break down this barrier and take it from there. There are dog policies and rules and people are responsible for their dog’s behaviour so it’s not just a free-for-all, but it’s definitely worked for us.”

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“Often the dog is our client’s only form of stability when we first work with them because they have chaotic lives and addictions. Being able to take pets means we have a foot in the door to work with that person. If we say we don’t take dogs then we aren’t going to get very far with helping them.”

He adds: “We’ve had some very positive outcomes and a lot of that is down to StreetVet and the support they offer.”

Back at the Birmingham soup kitchen, veterinary nurse Gemma Hunt has finished writing up Poochie’s patient notes.
The RSPCA only agreed to return Smith’s dog on condition that he could prove he would manage her arthritis and regularly attend StreetVet clinics. “Our clients are so nice and they really, really love their pets. That gentleman just carried Poochie a mile to get to us,” says Hunt, gesturing to Smith as he makes his way home with his dog and her arthritis medication.

“These people shouldn’t have to make the decision between a roof over their head and their dog.”

Smith is now hoping to be housed permanently with Poochie and to put their years of rough sleeping behind them.

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