It was seven years ago that Michelle Clark noticed the man and his dog. She was naive about homelessness in those days. She used to wonder, driving through London’s Crouch End, why she always saw the same man and his staffie, hanging out in the same place. One Christmas, she impulsively got hold of a mushroom box (“you remember the old boxes with handles?”), decorated it with tinsel and filled it to the brim with canine luxuries: blanket, treats, a little toy. Still, she hesitated. Perhaps this man was “chilling, watching the world go by”. Eventually, she plucked up the courage to speak to him (“What a beautiful dog! I see you here every day”) and confirmed that he and his dog were homeless. They loved her gift – and it started her thinking.
She noticed more homeless people with dogs all over London. She launched herself on a one-woman mission – went into mushroom box overdrive – she knew about pets because she ran a pet toy and accessory business. She also distributed double sleeping bags, roomy enough to accommodate owners and dogs together. Then, in 2016, her initiative changed up a gear. A homeless man collapsed in the street and refused to be taken in for treatment unless Clark agreed to look after his dog.
Poppy was a seven-year-old staffie: “She became my best friend. She taught me a lot about the relationship between street dogs and homeless people – the love, devotion and protection.” The dogs are therapy, she says, especially when their owners – as often happens on the street – unravel mentally. It was through Poppy’s need for veterinary treatment that she realised street dogs needed more care than they were getting.
Dots (Dogs on the Street) was launched in March 2017. Clark put the word out on social media locally in north Londonand the charity took off. Today, she has a vehicle that is a registered veterinary practice and a “tight team” of volunteers. They offer veterinary care, physiotherapy, grooming and fostering. Street dogs most commonly suffer orthopaedic problems from being out in all weathers and walking great distances. Dots’ first dog station was set up in the Strand, “running everything from pavement level”.
The charity is as much about the owners as the dogs themselves. Dog owners tend to be single males, “hardest to accommodate through council channels” and most prone to homelessness through “marriage breakdown, loss of job, landlord kick out”. Michelle blames the housing crisis – limited social housing and private landlords who do not welcome dogs.
Dots has raised funds to buy a boat for one dog owner who was “deteriorating”, and has recently accommodated another undergoing palliative care with only months to live. Their aim is to help out with accommodation whenever they can.Dots now operates in London, Oxford, Bournemouth, Dundee, Norwich, Kent and Milton Keynes; Michelle would love to go nationwide butit relies on public funding and overheads are huge. She herself is on call, day and night, seven days a week – particularly valuable in that most services for the homeless shut at 5pm.
And Poppy, does she still inspire? “She died last Christmas,” Michelle says, “but her legacy lives on.”