Pets not at home

There is a stigma around pet ownership and homelessness. But, people like our vendors shouldn't have to choose between their pets and a place to stay.

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There are many documented health and social benefits that come with pet ownership. The companionship of a pet provides a particularly powerful tonic; reports show that pets commonly alleviate feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression.

It is unsurprising, then, that UK pet ownership levels peaked to an unprecedented high of 62 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic. Statistica credits this increase as a by-product of lockdown rules, with people having to spend more time than ever at home and indoors.

Yet pet ownership among homeless and vulnerably housed people is also increasingly common. According to West London Misson, of the 300,000 people currently classified as homeless in the UK, up to 25 per cent are believed to have a pet.

These figures can prompt conflicting responses. For some, when the holistic health and social pros of pet ownership are considered, it is promising to hear that people experiencing homelessness in the most vulnerable of situations can benefit from companionship. For others, questions surface around how someone experiencing homelessness can afford to keep an animal, and where their priorities for bettering their lives really lie.

Pet ownership can perpetuate homelessness. Under current UK laws, if someone turns down social housing due to no pet clauses, they are considered “intentionally homeless”.

In the UK, pet ownership can perpetuate homelessness. Under current laws, if someone turns down social housing due to no pet clauses, they are considered “intentionally homeless” by most local authorities and will be refused further housing aid, restricting access to support services.

There are ongoing campaigns to change these laws. Dee Bonett is working to see the John Chadwick Pet Policy, introduced by Maidstone Borough Council in 2019 to ensure that people do not have to choose between their pets and accommodation, implemented nationwide. The policy is named after her best friend, who died by suicide after being forced to make that decision in 2016.

Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, has also introduced a bill in the House of Commons – dubbed “Jasmine’s Law” – to support tenants with pets.

“Animals are very important to people’s lives,” Rosindell told The Big Issue. “To lose an animal for many people is like losing a member of the family. It can have devastating effects on people’s lives, so I think that the law has to change, and the balance has to be put firmly towards the owner of the property to give justification why an animal cannot be allowed to live with its owner.”

On the surface, pet ownership amongst vulnerably housed people can appear to be a ‘head versus heart’ issue; having a dog may be nice, but is it really a reason to not have a house? Surely, if you need a place to sleep, you must accept that there are limitations on your options?

The error with this way of thinking is an underestimation of the “heart” side of things. Having a furry companion can have direct, positive, tangible consequences on someone’s wellbeing and health.

A study by the University of Nottingham and Dog’s Trust confirms that dog-ownership – and the relationship between someone and their dog – does indeed have powerful implications for the owner’s physical and psychological state.

The same can be said for the wellbeing of the animal. A study on ‘The health and welfare of dogs belonging to homeless people’ by David Leonard Williams and Sarah Hogg found that dogs owned by homeless people were healthy animals. They were less likely to be obese, had fewer behaviour issues (such as aggression to strangers) and separation anxiety when compared to dogs owned by people living in a  conventional home.

Our Big Issue North vendors with pets consistently credit them with being a source of motivation and support – things essential for people trying to improve their lives.

We see this every day with our Big Issue North vendors. Our vendors are not all homeless, but those with pets consistently credit them with being a source of motivation and support – essential for people trying to improve their lives.

Vendor Lewis, who sold the magazine in Lytham, is never far from his dog. He says that his dog helped to save his life and set him on the road to stability. “If I didn’t have the dog I wouldn’t be here now,” he says. “She’s always with me, even when I go out selling the magazine. In nine years, she’s only ever been apart from me once.”

Justin sells the magazine in Manchester. He is often accompanied by his beloved dog, Bumper. “My plans for the future? Survive until Bumper dies,” he says. “After that, I don’t know. As long as he’s alive, I’ll be okay. After that, I don’t care… I keep going for Bumper. He’s my baby. I’d be lost without him.”

For the most part, our vendors who have pets on their pitch receive positive, supportive reactions from members of the public. If anything, their dogs help them to attract attention and affection from passers-by that they may not always receive when on their own – though there has been the odd critical comment, mostly concerning how they afforded to buy a dog.

In most instances, vendors have adopted or taken on a pet who needed an owner. Stephen, who sells in Leeds, has two dogs – “Max, who has one eye because he had cancer and had to have one eye taken out, and then there’s Bailey. Max is six and half and Bailey is ten. I think Max’s owner got rid of him because he’s only got one eye.

“I got them just before Covid started. They were the best thing to have because for a start it meant that I could get out of the house to exercise them but they’re also good company. I love them both.”

By recognising the importance of these relationships to both animal and human health, we hope to undercut the stigma that can surround pet ownership and poverty.

For people like our vendors, an animal can be a life source and vital companion. We work with several charities, including Street Paws and the PDSA, to support our vendors and their beloved pets to keep healthy and to keep working.

A popular sentiment that floats around animal charities and shelters is the adage “who rescued who?” In the case of our vendors, the answer usually falls in favour of the pet.

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