Dogs – a night shelter manager’s perspective

It became apparent to me many years ago that for homeless people dogs were in a number of cases an inseparable friend, for wherever the dog went so that person would go too. The quandary faced was that when temporary and permanent accommodation was offered the offer did not include the dog, and rather be separated from his best friend and no compromise found that offer was declined.

When it comes to reasons why landlords etc. lay down rules such as this one might well speculate why this is the case and in likelihood it comes down to the dog creating some sort of problem that he/she feel cannot be dealt with without somehow compromising what is being offered. Whatever reason is offered some will still see this as being rather harsh (given the needs) and inflexible (give the options that might be available). People will make their own judgments. As part of a church response offering overnight accommodation, I am aware of accusations of being unchristian, when we turn away dogs.

Here I can only offer my own view and do not purport to speak for others although I do know many who agonize over the matter given their primary remit is to offer accommodation to those who need it. I manage one of the Winter Night Shelter operations and while we maintain what we see as a minimal conditions of hospitality, based mainly around what we are able to offer and behavioral expectation, one of these included “no pets”. This was laid down before my time based on what was seen as best practice and a realization if we don’t do so we would not be able to offer the restricted service we do.

That is not to say rules are to be broken especially when the situation demands and it begs the question in the case of a homeless person and his dog. So let me explain. Running a night shelter is no small deal. Those who are involved are all volunteers and it requires a lot of dedicated hard work by many to maintain the service we do and a degree of personal sacrifice. Often it comes down to offering a service with limits or no service at all, because my experience is when something is badly run or goes wrong or attempts to provide something that we realistically cannot to do and because certain things are not in place, it won’t last long and the service will cease. Those who then suffer are the beneficiaries. It is incidentally why we can’t / won’t accommodate many with an unaddressed substance misuse problem or who don’t follow the rules. Our remit is to offer hospitality to people as if it were Christ himself, and the decision to turn any away is not taken lightly and is always taken with health and safety, risk and our own limited capability concerns in mind.

Because this winter thus far is particularly bad weather wise, our services have been in more demand than usual and shelters have been running at full capacity and, sadly, if things continue in this vein we could end up turning some away who might otherwise meet the qualifying criteria. I suspect when people built churches and church halls they did not reckon on the building being used to accommodate the homeless (maybe they should have) and as it is what we have is not particularly suitable, but hey it is space under cover– right!? All true, but speaking for my operation there is no nook and crannie for a loose dog and it would be unfair on other guests and add an extra burden on those looking after them if a dog were on the loose. Even if in cage or somehow tied up (like what happens when people pop into their local shop) I can still envisage problems when it comes to managing what is often a fraught operation given the vulnerability of the people we have to deal with and the inexperience of volunteers dealing with irregular situations.

Many of us who volunteer are pet lovers and know how important pets are for those who face the daunting prospect of life on the streets. As I write, I have yet to decide how I would tackle “the dog situation” at my shelter and I do not speak for other managers, who also have to make these difficult decisions. In one sense I couldn’t care a toss when people criticize us for being unchristian, especially when most of them have done b***** all comparatively to help and have made little sacrifices in order to to help the homeless. As for christian or otherwise, what is done and needs doing is a human response to a tiny part of what is a big need, doing what we do as best we can. The truth is the system is broken bigly and all we do is pick up the pieces. To be fair to those who want answers, I hope this attempt at an explanation is helpful. Maybe our critics might care to open their home up for a homeless person and their dog (in the case of the current FB hysteria, A&B are the nicest pair you can meet)!?

Update 30/12/17: The “case” that sparked off this blog post has moved on as the particularly vulnerable owner and his dog at the centre has now been housed. There is little doubt though that there will be more homeless folk with dogs seeking accommodation and the same dilemma of do we or don’t we applies. I dare say the spirit that would get righteously indignant and want to take to task those who run night shelters for the homeless while operating a “no pets” policy will continue. While sympathetic and wanting to help homeless guests who want to be with their dogs the choice as I see it is clear. Either we take dogs in and in doing so add to the already considerable challenges that may well mean in the longer term we won’t be able to offer a service or we recognise our limitations (i.e. the premises we operate from cannot support dogs without being detrimental to the service we do offer) and act accordingly. I know what my choice will be and suggest those who object either start their own dog friendly night shelter or shut up. The needs among homeless folk are huge, the “system” is broken and those who freely give their time to help may well do the extra mile but can only do so much, and sometimes difficult decisions need to be made.

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