Homelessness and Pets: The Anchor in an Unstable World

Jade Statt

Jade Statt BVMS (Hons) MRCVS DVM GP cert SAM is the co-founder of StreetVet

www.streetvet.org.uk

StreetVet is a charity that offers free accessible veterinary care for the pets of those experiencing homelessness. Started four years ago by two vets, Jade Statt and Sam Joseph, with a backpack of supplies, StreetVet has since grown into a charity with more than 500 volunteers working in 16 different locations across the UK.

StreetVet has grown more rapidly than we could have imagined since we founded it in 2016, but our ethos remains the same – to do everything we can to keep our clients and their pets together and preserve the bond between humans and animals. In many cases, this bond is the only thing that sustains a homeless person taking each day as it comes.This same bond can also be the catalyst that allows someone to turn their life around.

Time and time again, the importance of these pets to their owners is highlighted to us through our work on the streets. As the co-founder, I am reminded on a daily basis why I wanted to set up StreetVet in the first place. As is often the case, it came from a chance encounter, an encounter that would change the course of my life.

At the time, I was dealing with the prospect of losing one of the true loves of my life – Oakley, my geriatric Labrador and soul mate, who had been with me through some tough times. Oakley had just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. While coming to terms with this news, I met Dave and his dog, Brick. Brick was suffering from a skin condition, causing itching and soreness, which was something I knew I could help with. As Dave and I talked dogs, I was struck by the obvious anxiety he felt about accessing veterinary care. As I walked away, I had one clear thought, what would I have done if I was in that position with Oakley? I knew that I could have helped Brick if I’d had the right stuff in my bag. For me that was where StreetVet was born – reflecting on my own bond with Oakley and seeing Dave’s connection to Brick.

In my 18 years as a vet and having worked with countless homeless clients, I have been privileged to witness the most symbiotic and profound relationships through StreetVet. These are such special connections which truly embody the human-animal bond, a bond best expressed by those clients StreetVet has been supporting throughout the coronavirus crisis.

“If I was separated from my dog, it would kill me. I’ve had no mental support since 2014, but my dog is my main mental health support. I’d rather risk my life in a pandemic than be separated from my dog.” Mick talking about his dog, Benson.

“When you are stood there hungry and people are walking by like you don’t exist, my dog gives me a role; it’s like having another heartbeat that is on your side. It’s company; he’s all the family I’ve got; he is my moral support; he is everything.” Andy talking about his dog, Bailey.

Although the words are different, the sentiment being expressed is the same; companion animals make a difficult life worth living. In a lonely and often brutal world, the pets of homeless people provide companionship, security, warmth and unconditional love.

These pets – mainly dogs but also cats – can often be a link to happier times as many of our clients’ dogs were in their lives prior to them experiencing homelessness. StreetVet clients often refer to their pet as their family, and I am in no doubt that pet ownership enhances our clients’ social, physical and emotional health.They provide a sense of routine, responsibility, an identity – and in many cases, a reason to live.

It is this sense of duty that can lead our clients to make better life choices, such as reducing substance abuse and criminal activity; the possibility of imprisonment would mean forced separation from their dog. But owning a pet on the streets also comes at a cost.

As well as restricting the mobility of someone who is homeless, owning a dog can often prevent their access to soup kitchens, healthcare and hostel rooms. This means that somewhere between 16,000 and 64,000 of the estimated 320,000 people living on the UK’s streets do not access support because they have a pet.

Imagine being told to choose between a roof over your head or your pet. It is a choice none of us would want to make, but with only 10% of homeless hostels in the UK accepting pets, it’s a choice facing StreetVet’s clients every day. If they stay on the street, they are labelled ‘voluntarily homeless’, if they say yes to a hostel place, they may be forced to give up their only friend.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made some hostels realise that, in exceptional circumstances, they can accept dogs and it’s not as much of an undertaking as they previously thought. We are optimistic as we launch the next phase in our story, the StreetVet Accredited Hostel Scheme, a project aimed at increasing the number of UK hostels that are willing to accept pets.

Our aim is that no one should be forced to choose between somewhere to stay and their best friend. But the fact that our clients almost always choose to stay on the street, rather than relinquish their pet is, I believe, the most powerful example of the complex and intense bond between humans and animals.