When Primal Scream bassist and dog-lover Simone Butler went looking for a canine companion of her own two years ago, she ended up finding out more than she could ever have imagined about the relationship between mankind and its best friend.
As part of her search, the Soho Radio DJ and presenter interviewed Michelle Clark, who founded and runs Dogs on the Streets (DOTS), a group of volunteers dedicated to the welfare of dogs belonging to the UK’s homeless community.
Concerned about the often negative perceptions of the relationship, Simone’s new documentary, Year of the Dog, investigates whether it is fair to have a dog when you are homeless.
It’s no spoiler to say that the answer is a resounding yes.
“I went into the film with some preconceived notions,” Simone tells the BBC. “[However], I realised that the dogs on the streets are so adored that they are always with their owners.
“The owners will feed the dogs first, followed by themselves.
“The street dogs are extremely well-mannered, and I never witnessed any aggression. Which is very different from dogs who may stay in a lot or do not see their owners, and then go out and run into another dog in the street who is fighting with them “She continues.
“The dogs on the streets are so socialised that that never really happens.”
‘Reason for living’
The hour-long documentary follows narrator Simone, Michelle, and the other “amazing humans” who work for DOTS to assist homeless people and their dogs who may require veterinary and/or administrative assistance.
It also shows what happens to the dogs, both physically and emotionally, when their human guardians are suddenly unable to care for them.
One recently rehoused man is heard saying that if it weren’t for his dog, he would be “dead or in jail” right now.
“We wanted to give people a more in-depth look at what it’s like to be on the street with a dog, and to delve into that relationship and that unconditional love,” Simone says.
“It makes no difference if someone does not have a roof over their head. It is, in fact, a lifeline. It is a reason to live.”
Many of DOTS’ clients, Michelle explains, became rough sleepers “because of the housing barriers out there.” Those whose domestic situations have recently changed, in particular.
While having a dog “widens the barrier” for them in terms of quickly finding suitable accommodation again, she adds that the relationship provides them with “routine, companionship, and responsibility,” as well as some semblance of control.
In the middle of filming Year of the Dog, all sense of control was lost when Covid struck, with at least two DOTS clients losing their lives to the virus.
In order to help stop its spread, the government launched its Everyone In initiative, which has provided more than 37,000 rough sleepers with a place to stay during the pandemic. Many hotels and buildings that were suddenly out of action were used to house previously homeless people.
However, once the initial strict lockdown ended, these buildings were needed again and many people found themselves back out on the streets.
According to the homeless charity Shelter, in August, fewer than one in four homeless people housed via the scheme had moved into permanent accommodation, though a spokeswoman for the government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told the BBC this week that 26,000 people had done so.
Michelle is quick to point out that local governments still have the authority to accommodate anyone who is deemed to be at risk or vulnerable.
She points out, however, that rough sleepers live “where there is society, socialisation, public and space.”
“When these people are placed in emergency Covid [accommodation], they are placed in a room with four walls, cut off from socialisation, and cut off from routine.
“They still have mental health issues and – if they have them – alcohol and drug addiction, and they aren’t getting the help they need.
“So, as strange as it sounds, I used to say they were safer and better on the street because they live a very isolated life anyway.”
‘Tell their truth’
Last month, Shelter warned that the number of homeless people could surge this winter, because of the end of Covid protections.
The new film’s director, Paul Sng, wants to challenge the stigmatisation and demonization of homeless people and their dogs.
“There are many documentaries and reality shows that portray vulnerable people in a negative light, portraying them as victims and drains on society,” he says.
“So we always want to make something with humanity, something that is empathetic.”
“People have the ability to speak for themselves,” he continues. “You don’t have to put words in their mouths; all you have to do is provide a safe environment and an opportunity for them to tell their truth.”
In the film’s dramatic opening scene, an unsympathetic member of the public engages Simone and the DOTS team in a heated debate, questioning the charity’s motivations and the morality of homeless people owning dogs.
While such incidents are uncommon, Michelle admits that the charity encounters more problems with rough sleepers who do not have dogs, who wonder why the animals are consuming their resources.
Many members of the public are “very giving,” she observes, especially during the holiday season, but this can diminish in January.
“Homelessness isn’t just for the holidays,” Michelle says. “It’s kind of like a dog.” Homelessness exists 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
“January is actually the most difficult month for our homeless community,” she adds. “We’ve discovered that we’re needed for more than just lifting and supporting them.
“‘Everyone remembers the name of my dog, but they never remember the name of me,’ say rough sleepers with dogs.” These people are not insignificant; they are not invisible.”
While Simone immersed herself in the dog-umentary, she has yet to find a dog to call her own.
Her band will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of their album Screamadelica this summer with a string of live shows, which could make it more difficult.
For the time being, she is the go-to dog-sitter for all of her friends.
“One of my friends said to me, ‘One day you have a dog, the next day you have a family member you would die for,'” she explains. “I believe that is correct.”
Year of the Dog is available to watch online from 10 January, via Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.