When Michelle Southern saw a homeless man and his dog as she volunteered at a soup kitchen, she vowed she would do something to help him.
She recognised that while people living on the streets were given food and other essentials, there wasn’t the same for their pets.
At the time, back in April 2016, Michelle, a mum of two from Blyth, Northumberland, was working as a practice manager for Vets4Pets.
Determined to make a difference, she rallied her contacts in the veterinary world to create Street Paws, a charity supporting pets and their owners across the UK and Ireland.
Now Michelle has volunteers working across the UK, has helped 14 shelters become pet friendly and helped 720 animals and their owners.
On Street Paws’ fifth birthday, she shares her story.
How did Street Paws begin?
I was volunteering with a Newcastle soup kitchen making sandwiches to hand out at their weekly session in the city centre.
One night, I saw a dog and their owner and I realised that there was no support for the dog and I wanted to do something.
So I spoke to some of the vets at work, and the following week three of us went to the kitchen armed with basic veterinary supplies.
The idea was we would health check, vaccinate and flea and worm any dogs at the outreach.
How did you use your network to rally support across lots of different locations?
The veterinary world is very small and close knit and after a few months of operating in Newcastle, news of our work spread.
Vets in other areas were interested in supporting Street Paws and we expanded first into York, then Leeds and Manchester.
What was it like at first with Street Paws?
For a few visits in Newcastle we actually didn’t see any dogs. It took time for the homeless community to trust us.
For many homeless pet owners, their animal is their whole world and at the beginning, we would be told that their animal saw a vet regularly.
We learned they were worried we might take their dog away so we spent months building up trust with owners.
How did you go about letting the homeless community know Street Paws was there and wanted to help?
It took lots of perseverance! It helped that we also partnered with a charity or service that they knew and trusted.
As we became more established, word grew in the homeless community about the support we could offer and things began to take off.
Our teams of vet volunteers built relationships and often friendships with owners. Many of the dogs we have seen for years and are firmly part of the Street Paws family.
Can you tell me about some of the ways Street Paws helps pets?
We work in three ways.
The first is monthly outreach to support with basic veterinary care. Volunteers provide nose to tail health checks, vaccinations, flea and worming and microchipping.
Any condition that can’t be treated at outreach is referred to a supporting vet practice – such as dental treatments and neutering.
We cover the cost of all treatments and procedures.
Then there is the Dog Champions Scheme and this provides support to hostels and accommodation providers to become pet friendly.
During the Beast from the East, we became aware of the issue of the lack of accommodation for rough sleepers with pets.
Less than ten per cent of hostels would allow pets at the time. We had to do something and the Dog Champions Scheme was set up in 2019.
We put kennels into hostel grounds to allow dogs and owners to stay together and have ten supported kennels across Leeds, Manchester and the North East.
The pandemic meant it was even more urgent to provide accommodation and we support the Manchester City Council ‘Bed Every Night’ Scheme.
This is an education programme giving training and support to hostel staff, full veterinary support for residents of the scheme and a 24/7 helpline.
There’s also essentials for dogs including a welcome pack on arrival, food, leads, collars, bowls, beds and anything they may need.
We have 14 hostels working with us, and this number is growing weekly.
Finally, we provide Emergency Kennel Space for homeless people who might need to go into hospital or into accommodation that isn’t pet friendly.
Often, having a pet will prevent them accessing NHS inpatient care, and the scheme provides up to 14 nights in a kennel for their pet.
During the first lockdown the scheme was used to get everyone into accommodation quickly where pet friendly accommodation was not available.
In five years, how many animals and owners have Street Paws volunteers helped?
We’ve supported 720 pets and owners – a total of 702 dogs, 16 cats, a hamster and a ferret.
What has been your most memorable case or client?
Most recently it would be Nathan and his dog Patches. We first met in Manchester two years ago when Patches was a puppy.
Nathan is unrecognisable from when we met and through the Dog Champions Scheme he’s had the support he needed and is moving into permanent accommodation soon.
Nathan told us last month if it wasn’t for Patches he would be dead or in prison, he is his family, his whole world and is a total credit to him.
I’m so pleased that due to our scheme he is moving on and no longer has to remain rough sleeping as he has a dog.
Nathan has shared how Street Paws helped him and featured on Steph’s Packed Lunch in December 2020.
Can you tell me about the impact Street Paws has had on improving support for homeless pet owners?
Our greatest aim is to continue to support accommodation providers so no one has to make a choice between accepting help and a bed or their dog.
Our focus is to expand the scheme nationally, and get more people and their dogs off the streets.
What do you think the biggest misconception is around homelessness and pet ownership?
In the beginning, a lot of people questioned how a homeless person could care for a dog.
They felt the dog didn’t have a choice but to live on the street and that they would be better off rehomed.
I can tell you that most homeless people their pets provide companionship and for many is their only friend and they will absolutely put their needs first.
They give them a purpose and a reason to carry on as they have a responsibility for their care and welfare.
The dog doesn’t judge their past mistakes in life and shows them love. In most cases the dog’s health is far better than their owners.
I’ve lost count of the times when a homeless person has been offered food by a passing member of the public and they’ve opened it and fed the dog first.
Is there a message you’d like to share about the relationship between homeless people and their pets?
It’s the human that suffers BECAUSE they have a dog in accessing support and a bed in a hostel.
Ask them to give the dog up – the easier option in the circumstances – and they absolutely won’t – quite rightly.
I don’t think that the dog actually cares if they’re living with a homeless person. They spend all day every day with their owners and are well socialised.
They’re fed, exercised, snuggled together for warmth at night and loved.
That to me is testament to their bond and why Street Paws (and I) are determined to bring change and support for them to stay together.
Five years is a huge milestone, what will you be doing to celebrate?
We are hosting a Big Pet party which is on Tuesday 6th April 7-8pm. We are asking people to join in the celebration by joining us on the night and you can reserve a seat here.
We have special guests including Cat the Vet, dog dancing and dog and owner mediation session to round off the night.
We have a range of special merchandise to celebrate and print outs, bunting and cake toppers to download to join in the fun
What’s next for Street Paws?
We’re growing our Dog Champions scheme nationally and we will continue to support our dogs and owners by expanding into new areas.
How can people support you and find out more?
They can visit our website at www.streetpaws.co.uk where you can find all the pet party information and RSVP your seat.
You’ll also find Street Paws merchandise and you can sign up for our newsletter to keep in touch.
We’d also love it if you could follow us on social media and like and share our social media posts.
Find Street Paws on Facebook @streetpawsvet
On Instagram @streetpawsvet
And on Twitter @streetpawsvet