Man's best friend needs a bed, too

When the homeless have pets they are refused shelter. That may soon change, writes Jim O'Rourke.

When the homeless have pets they are refused shelter. That may soon change, writes Jim O'Rourke.

JOHN is 52 and has been living rough on Sydney's streets on and off for more than a decade. His closest friend is Laya, a four-month-old blue heeler pup who sits quietly by his side as he asks for money from passers-by to pay for food for them both.

John wants somewhere for them to live, either a permanent place in a boarding house or at least a few nights in emergency accommodation, to escape the winter cold.

He's been offered places to stay, but a ban on taking pets into various types of lodgings means that he would have to give up Laya.

John's case highlights a little-known phenomenon for the homeless. "In many cases a pet is the only kind of loving relationship a homeless person has," explains Felicity Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Mercy Foundation, a branch of the Sisters of Mercy that is supporting initiatives to prevent homelessness.

"People who sleep rough will choose to stay with their pets rather than be separated. We are talking about people who are already marginalised from mainstream society."

But now the foundation and other advocates are preparing to lobby local, state and federal governments to urge policy change that will lead to a greater acceptance of pets in accommodation for the homeless.

Clover Moore, the MP for Sydney and the city's lord mayor, has given notice of a motion to establish a parliamentary select committee to inquire into companion animal welfare. As it stands, homeless people must leave dogs outside even if they visit a drop-in centre for a shower and a cup of coffee.

The Sun-Herald met John and Laya in the Pitt Street Mall on Thursday. "She's my pride and joy," he said. "I love her. She's everything to me. People ask me if I'd sell her and I tell them 'no way'. I love her." John is sometimes able to stay with a female friend, but they always "fall out" and he takes Laya back to the streets. "I try to get a place for us, but they won't take Laya. So we sleep down at Wynyard Station. I don't want to lose her."

In some states in America, Ms Reynolds said, homeless people could register dogs as "assistance pets" to help with their psychiatric conditions. Those dogs could not be turned away from homeless shelters or other accommodation.

"Perhaps we should be thinking about this as a possible solution," she said.

Figures from the National Coalition for the Homeless in the United States show that between 5 and 10 per cent of homeless people have an animal companion.

Rose Searby, the founder of Health and Emotional Wellbeing in the Lives of People and Pets (HELPP), is gathering research to lobby politicians. She said the vast majority of welfare operators offering short, medium and long-term accommodation in NSW would not take in a homeless person if they want to keep their animal with them.

"In Australia we have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world," Dr Searby said. "Animals have to be accepted as inter-connected with human beings ... so people can access those services and live a normal life with their pets."

Wentworth Community Housing at Penrith, which offers subsidised accommodation to the disadvantaged, is managing a scheme offering 60 homes where pets are allowed to the chronically homeless. Its "Project 40" recognises that pets are important to the homeless.

Ms Moore said the parliamentary committee would consider policies on homeless people and pets as well as stopping the ban on animals in apartments, retirement villages and rental properties.

"It is one of the saddest things," Ms Moore said. "A person will refuse to go into a refuge without their pet and sleep in a tunnel or a shop doorway instead."

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