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Film

‘Their dogs are a reason for living’: A new film tells the story of homeless people and their pets

Paul Sng’s new documentary Year of the Dog shows how charity Dogs on the Street helped rough sleepers and their dogs through the trauma of lockdown.

Michelle Clark has been supporting homeless people and their pets for years.

As founding director of vital charity Dogs on the Street, her life’s work has been looking out for vulnerable people and their dogs – whether helping them into suitable housing where they can keep their four-legged friend by their side, providing veterinary support or temporarily housing dogs when their owners are ill or in temporary hostels where pets are forbidden.

Clark was supporting dogs on the street (and their human companions) for years before launching the charity of the same name in 2016.

Her work is now captured on film in Year of the Dog, a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Sng, which is fronted by Primal Scream bass player, Soho Radio presenter, and dog lover Simone Marie.

“People can become desensitised to problems – whether it is homelessness or child poverty because we are bombarded with information all the time,” says Sng.

“I wanted to find a way to tell a story about homelessness that would really make people stop to look. We are a nation of animal lovers. The people we met would so often put the dog’s welfare before their own. And for them, the work Dogs on the Street do is massive. It is so important. It is life changing.”

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There was a mother and a daughter who took it in turns to sleep on the streets with their dog rather than abandon it

Paul Sng

When Covid shut down the country, Sng carried on filming – “I couldn’t give up on the film because Dogs On The Street don’t give up on anyone,” he says – and Clark kept on supporting people. But even she was unprepared for the sudden impact of Covid-19 and the UK’s belated lockdown.

“It was a catastrophe. Nobody was prepared for that,” she says. “I made the decision to carry on supporting the clients – the dogs and the vulnerable people on the streets – because I knew it was going to have a massive impact on them.”

It did. But in ways that few people without Clark’s intimate knowledge of the lives and needs of people sleeping rough and their constant companions would have realised.

“I was called down to [homeless charity] St Mungo’s in Victoria on the day they were decanting rough sleepers off the streets of Westminster. This was the Everyone In campaign kicking in. And it haunts me,” says Clark.

“There were about 60 rough sleepers there. Everyone was crying. Men and women, because there was so much confusion. One lady was lying on the floor sobbing. I realised that, because they didn’t have access to TV and radios, they didn’t know what was going on. They were panic-stricken. ‘What is happening?’ ‘Why are we being taken off the street?’

“They were being taken away from their everyday life into something that was scary for them. Many of them have been institutionalised into their life on the street – they might have addictions, mental health issues, and they have a community.”

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Clark took in 60 dogs to the sanctuary that is just one part of Dogs On The Street’s operation. The charity continued to operate its regular drop-ins in The Strand in Central London, while pausing operations around the rest of the country. And that is when London felt post-apocalyptic, says Clark.

She continues: “There were no members of the public around. It was eerie. But what was so warming for us as much as them was that our community, the people in need of our help and support, still came along. And it was a huge support to us as well. It’s not just about what we as charities give to these people, it’s also what they give to us. But I believe it really did give them a sense of community, a sense of somebody still being there for them.”

My ultimate goal is to get people house

Michelle Clark, Dogs on the Street founding director

As Clark knows and the new film shows, given the choice of giving up a beloved canine companion to take up a hostel place, or sleeping on the street, many people reluctantly choose to sleep rough.

Filmmaker Sng tells the story of a mother and daughter he met while shooting Year of the Dog. They became homeless and were only offered pet-free accommodation, but put their pet first.

“There was a mother and a daughter who took it in turns to sleep on the streets with their dog rather than abandon it,” he says. “It was a very powerful thing to hear.”

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It is a story of extreme devotion. One of many you will hear when you talk to homeless people about their dogs. But it’s also a story of failure. The failure of government to properly fund councils, and of councils to meet their statutory obligation to provide suitable accommodation.

These are situations in which Dogs On The Street are able to intervene. This can be in taking dogs into their temporary sanctuary until better accommodation is found. But it can also involve direct advocacy on behalf of their clients.

“I recently picked up a rough sleeper who has had 15 support workers in a matter of six weeks,” says Clark. Little wonder, then, that they had not been helped into accommodation. The dogs, explains Clark, were the barrier. But she was able to get them housed within days.

“My ultimate goal is to get people housed, get them mental health support, but also to remind councils they owe a duty of care to house the person and their possessions. And that includes dogs.”

One of the recipients of Clark and her team’s combination of tenacity and kindness has been Big Issue vendor Gary Spall. He features in Year of the Dog, alongside his beloved companion Lola.

When Spall was housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation far from his support network and his Big Issue pitch, Clark was among those who fought to get him something better.

“Gary has been a client of mine since before I even started dogs on the streets,” she says.

“I used to be independent person out there helping, and back then he was in Westminster.

“I actually took on his case to get him into suitable accommodation with his dog. We took on the local council. He was put out in Brent, away from his dog and it was very, very difficult. They cut him off from his Big Issue selling, they cut him off from his social support, his emotional support and his medical support. No, no, no, no, no, no, no! You’re not helping this person – you’re putting him in a more serious and complex situation.”

With Clark’s help, Gary was able to stay with Lola and close to his pitch on London’s Holloway Road.

“They eventually gave him temporary council accommodation in the area, about five minutes from his Big Issue pitch,” grins Clark.

And why does this matter? Why should we care that people and their pets can stay together?

“Their dogs give them routine, consistency, a reason to get up, exercise, socialisation, responsibility,” says Clark. “Their dogs are a reason for living.”

Year of the Dog is launched at the Curzon Soho on November 12, before further Q&A screenings in London, Newcastle, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow. Click here for information and tickets. The film will be released on digital platforms on January 10.

Read more about Dogs On The Street in The Big Issue magazine on sale from 15 November.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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