Pets at home

The death of a once homeless man could bring about a change in policy on pets in temporary accommodation – but only after a gently persistent campaign by his friend

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A few years after leaving his hometown of Salford to escape family issues, John Chadwick was found wandering the streets of London by a St Mungo’s worker. He’d developed an alcohol addiction while sleeping rough, and was transferred to a detox unit in Kent.

“We’re supposed to be a nation of animal lovers – why are pets seen as a liability?”

After completing a six-month rehab programme at Kenward Trust in 2008, Chadwick secured a tenancy with a private landlord in Maidstone. But when his dad fell ill a year later, Chadwick went up to Salford to visit him, and when he came back to Maidstone, he relapsed.

He was supported every day for six weeks by Dee Bonett, who’d met Chadwick through a mutual friend. They’d hit it off instantly, and quickly became close; Bonett felt safe with him. After finishing another two-week rehab programme, Bonett knew Chadwick needed a purpose.

“I knew he had mental health issues, but you wouldn’t know by speaking with him – it was very internal,” she says.

She got Chadwick a kitten, Gizmo, who gave him the boost he needed. Gizmo and Chadwick doted on each other, and it wasn’t long before the kitten was given two playmates in the form of Jack Russell cross puppies, Tinkerbell and Theo. At this point, Chadwick was living in a ground floor flat with his pets, and working as a taxi driver.

“John had a little life for himself here. He often came out with me and my friends and he’d come over for Christmas dinner,” Bonett says.

But in December 2016, Chadwick was given an eviction notice by his private landlord, who wanted to sell the property. He was evicted in March 2017, and Bonett took him to Maidstone Borough Council and presented him as homeless.

Bonett felt powerless. She knew this wasn’t going to end well, that Chadwick wouldn’t be allowed to take his pets into temporary accommodation – but no one would listen. Chadwick was placed in a B&B, separated from his beloved animals. A few days later, he was offered a permanent tenancy on the seventh floor of a tower block, where he also wasn’t allowed his pets.

It’s estimated that up to 10 per cent of the UK’s homeless population have pets, who can provide crucial support for people’s mental health. But pets can also put homeless people in a very difficult, and potentially harmful, situation.

The number of people in England in desperate need of a roof over their heads far outweighs the country’s social housing stock. The journey to being permanently housed, therefore, is an extremely precarious one.

If someone in temporary accommodation declines their first offer of permanent accommodation, a council can deem them intentionally homeless and wash its hands of its duty to house that person.

But people don’t decline this offer because the garden isn’t south-facing, or the window in the back bedroom is a bit small. When faced with the choice between a warm house or life on the streets, their reasons for declining an offer of permanent housing are complex. Sadly, one council learnt a painful lesson by not making room for such complexities.

John Chadwick and his beloved Jack Russell cross

Bonett says Chadwick’s mental health deteriorated rapidly, and 10 days after being separated from Gizmo, Tinkerbell and Theo, he took his own life at the age of 52, on the anniversary of his mum’s death. The coroner ruled at the inquest into Chadwick’s death that the loss of his pets was a key factor in his decision to end his life.

In her grief, Bonett fought to get the council to make sure this never happened again. She approached Labour councillor Malcom McKay for help, who says Chadwick’s death “woke up” the council.

“I’m not a pet-lover. When Dee came to me with her campaign I told her she might be asking the wrong person. But I listened to her and what she said was fair and just. Kicking someone off halfway up the ladder doesn’t seem right to me,” he says.

Bonett attended council meetings and fought for changes that would prevent anyone else being put in the position her friend was. But it was a peaceful fight. Bonnet has told the council that she didn’t want to apportion blame, that she’s driven by the love of her friend, not by anger.

“John wouldn’t have wanted anger. I’ve had people wanting to march in the street with banners but I couldn’t think of anything worse,” she says. “I can’t afford to get angry. That won’t do me any good.

“I told the council John wouldn’t survive without his animals but their duty of care was to house him. If they really thought things would’ve turned out how they did, I’m sure they would’ve safeguarded him. I don’t think for one minute they don’t care about what happened.”

It worked. In 2018 the council introduced a pets in accommodation policy, which states that people who are homeless can take their pets into temporary accommodation if the property is suitable to do so. The council has since accommodated people in its own housing stock, including seven cats and dogs at the moment.

“The issue of accommodating people with pets is an ongoing problem, particularly when relying on parties to offer temporary accommodation – having our own has made this easier,” says John Littlemore, Maidstone Council’s head of housing and community services.

Bonett says the pet policy was a huge step forward – but this wasn’t the end of her battle.

“John was only given one offer of permanent housing with a no-pet policy, and if he refused, he would’ve made himself intentionally homeless. Pets can be someone’s lifeline but they’re seen as disposable items,” she says.

Two years on from her first victory, Bonett campaigned for the council to extend the pet policy to permanent tenancies with private and social housing landlords, so no one else would be deemed intentionally homeless if they refused their offer of permanent accommodation due to a no-pet policy.

“Dee’s view, and I support her in this, is to see how it goes for a year, which is a big step for the council to take. A lot of councils wouldn’t go this far,” McKay said on the eve of the council meeting that would decide the fate of the council’s pet policy for permanent tenancies.

McKay said a further change in policy would sometimes be inconvenient for council officers and landlords, but it wouldn’t cost the council much.

At a council meeting on 25 August, a majority voted for a year-long trial where people can decline their first offer of permanent accommodation if they aren’t allowed to take their pet. Housing officers will then be able to use their discretion if someone declines a second offer where pets aren’t allowed.

“If we can’t meet expectations with the first offer, it gives officers breathing space to find something suitable,” Littlemore says. “It’s a compromise, because we don’t work in a perfect system, but I hope it will benefit pet owners we accommodate.”

Bonett’s measured approach paid off.

“Dee’s a remarkable woman and very passionate, which is infectious,” Littlemore says. “Working in the way she has has encouraged us to explore possibilities and how to accommodate them.”

At the moment, the council is working with 12 housing associations with varying approaches. Littlemore’s aim is to get landlords on board – which could be a sticking point – particularly because rough sleepers, he says, tend to be accommodated in flats where landlords are more likely to be resistant about

“I hope we can change people’s views, because we’ve made it work in temporary accommodation for a year,” he says.

He also hopes that the council will report back after the pilot that it was a success, so it can be continued as a permanent policy.

Bonett has received a lot of support from the north of England, particularly the Manchester area, where Chadwick grew up. She hopes that Maidstone Council will set a benchmark for other councils across the country.

“When the council makes this change, others across the country will have no excuse to not do the same,” she says. “We’re supposed to be a nation of animal lovers – why are pets seen as a liability?

“John’s pets were his lifeline. He needed them to wake up to and go home to. They gave him unconditional love. When you’re street homeless and you’ve got the public walking past and ignoring you, your pets aren’t judging you. They just want to be with you.”

While Littlemore was getting the management team together to look at the pet policy in January this year, the government called on landlords to allow tenants with well behaved pets. He’s now hoping to work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on this issue, and share
the council’s experiences.

And according to Littlemore, Maidstone is the first council to implement something like this.

“When we tried to do research around this, we couldn’t find anyone with a similar policy to what we’re doing,” he says.

McKay agrees that Maidstone could set a precedent for change across the country.

“When people can point to other authorities and say ‘Why aren’t we doing this? it does help,” he says. “A lot of these people are vulnerable in all sorts of ways. They’re probably dependent upon pets for love and affection, more so than I could ever imagine.”

Four legs good

Michelle Southern, founder of Newcastle-based charity Street Paws, which works to support homeless people and their pets across the country, predominantly the north of England, has seen the devastating impact of people who are rough sleeping having to choose between their pets and shelter.

In the winter of 2018, most of the UK was shut indoors, avoiding the Beast from the East, which brought unusually cold temperatures and heavy snow. Southern saw people who were sleeping rough being signposted to provision, only to be told they couldn’t bring their dog with them, and choosing to stay outside.

“It’s cruel if you want to get your life back on track and have to choose between your dog and getting support,” Southern says.

In the preceding two years, thing haven’t much improved. During the lockdown, when councils were told by the government to house all rough sleepers, numerous councils contacted Street Paws asking for help. In one hotel in Wakefield, Southern says, two men were put in a hotel that didn’t accept dogs, so they slept in the hotel car park.

Manchester is one council probably slightly ahead in the race, as it managed to get every rough sleeper and dog off the streets during the pandemic.

The charity has installed four insulated dog kennels in hotels in Manchester, Leeds and Northumberland. One hostel has a four-bedroom dormitory specifically for dog owners that opens out onto a courtyard where the kennels are. One man has slept in the kennel with his dog for the last 10 months.

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