Dogs are often described as “man’s best friend”. For homeless people, this can be especially true, meaning they’ll do almost anything to make sure they’re looked after even if it means their own needs come second.
Tony*, one of the first clients for Ruff Sleepers – a new pet washing service for homeless people co-founded by Associate Professor Bronwen Dalton of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) – says his dog is “my world”.
So he coughed up when the landlord of his bedsit demanded an extra $100 a week, on top of the $200 a week he was already paying in rent, for his dog Brodie* to stay with him. This left him with just $40 a week to live on.
“Somehow we managed it,” he says. “I went without meals but I made sure Brodie always got what he needed.
“I have no contact with family and no friends,” Tony says. “Brodie is my world and I’d do anything for him.”
Ruff Sleepers volunteers held their first grooming session for “dogs on the street” on Sunday, alongside the monthly Pets in the Park clinic in the grounds of St John’s Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney.
The team aims to provide the service monthly, if they can generate sufficient support from sponsors. It would be Australia’s first ongoing grooming service for homeless people’s pets, if so.
Dr Dalton, an associate professor at UTS Business School and Director of its Masters of Not-for-Profit and Social Enterprise Program, says the bond between homeless people and their pets can be so strong that they will decline to be housed if it means giving up their dogs. She witnessed this personally while working in the not-for-profit sector with Mission Australia before joining UTS.
Other people become homeless in the first place because they can’t find a landlord who will let them keep a pet.
“Homeless people often face the heartbreaking choice between accommodation or their pet because shelters and public and private housing often cannot accommodate their best – and possibly only – friend,” Dr Dalton says.
“When presented with an opportunity for housing in which no pets are allowed, homeless pet owners face the choice of either losing their pets to obtain a house – or keeping their pets and remaining homeless.”
Dr Dalton says the idea for Ruff Sleepers, which she has co-founded with UTS NFP Program students Tully Rosen and Linda Castellazzi, came to her at the annual Sydney Homeless Connect day.
“As a board member of partner organisation Volunteering NSW, I’ve attended this amazing event and every year the longest queue is for the dog washing service,” she says. She started to think about how a regular service could be provided.
Dr Dalton says research into the relationship between homeless people and companion animals has found that their attachment to their animals is stronger than in the general public.
“There is evidence that keeping a pet may be beneficial for those who are homeless. Research suggests that companion animal ownership is effective at reducing loneliness and providing unconditional love,” she says.
“There is even research indicating that some animal-owning homeless people don’t engage in substance abuse or high-risk behaviour because of a sense of responsibility for their companions.”
Other research has identified these special relationships as a source of protection for homeless people, and as a means of socially connecting with the public.
Dr Dalton says she hopes Ruff Sleepers will be another pathway to “equal, respectful and positive interaction” with homeless people.
“A common love for dogs can break down social barriers. This program is about a community of people who love dogs and want to give them a treat. It’s ultimately a respectful point of connection between dog washing volunteers and homeless people.”
It is also an opportunity to provide information on other related services available, such as free vet services – along with a free cuppa and a slice of cake.
Ruff Sleepers is looking for sponsors to help it continue its monthly grooming services and to start an emergency treatment fund at Camperdown Vet Clinic. “Homeless people's pets can get seriously hurt,” Dr Dalton says. “This fund would ensure that, no matter what your situation in life, your best friend can get life-saving treatment if needed.”
Dr Dalton also hopes to raise awareness that homeless people need greater access to pet-friendly accommodation options. Tony recently secured a Department of Housing place for himself and Brodie.
* Not their real names
Pets in the Park offers a free vet service once a month in Darlinghurst and in Parramatta.
This year’s Sydney Homeless Connect day is scheduled for July 3.