Sunday sit-down with… Michelle Southern, Street Paws
We caught up with Michelle to find out how the pandemic has helped her mission to support the special bond between homeless people and their dogs...
The bond between dogs and humans is unbreakable. And for thousands of homeless people, their four-legged companions have been there by their side through the hardest of times.
But with most hostels not allowing dogs inside, many owners choose to live on the streets and often feed their four-legged friends before feeding themselves. And this is where Michelle Southern comes in.
After volunteering at The Soup Kitchen in 2016, Michelle saw first-hand the lack of support on offer to homeless people and their pets. While she was working as a veterinary practice manager, Michelle persuaded a vet to help provide vaccinations, flea, and worming treatments to dogs living on the streets of Newcastle. And Street Paws was born.
The charity aims to support the special bond between owner and dog by providing free veterinary care and emergency kennel space, day and night, to dogs owned by people who are homeless or affected by poverty.
Since starting in Newcastle in 2016, Street Paws now has outreach teams across the UK and Ireland; they have over 360 volunteers, and Michelle and her team have supported around 800 animals – including 17 cats and one hamster. And this total doesn’t even include referrals they’ve made!
Now, Michelle is campaigning to allow dogs into temporary accommodation and hostels, so homeless people can get off the streets without giving up their pets. And, surprisingly enough, the pandemic has actually helped her cause.
‘Over lockdown, we still kept the majority of the busiest city outreaches running, because even though hostels and hotels opened their doors to homeless people, many still didn’t let dogs in,’ says Michelle. ‘So, there was still a lot of people sleeping with their animals.
‘Since lockdown lifted and things have been starting to get back to normal, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people who seem to be in a more desperate situation. But, strangely, the pandemic actually helped us, as there was a greater urgency to get homeless people inside, so more accommodation providers allowed dogs inside than in the past.
‘In Manchester, we support about 16 hostels and we’re working with The Riverside Group – who are one of the largest social housing providers – to train all of their staff now, so they can welcome pets into their hostels and housing facilities. There’s been a real change. But there definitely needs to be more hostels that allow dogs in the North East. We get referrals every week for people in the region and there’s just nowhere for them to go. The North East is my home and where I originally set up the charity, so I feel passionate to make this change.’
As a nation of dog lovers, it’s natural for some people to think that it may be cruel to keep dogs on the streets. But Michelle confirms that this isn’t the case. ‘We used to get that a lot in the beginning, but not so much now because I think we’ve got the message out,’ she tells us. ‘A lot of people are pretty surprised that the people receiving our support have dogs who rarely need any kind of medical treatment, except flea and worm tablets and vaccinations. They’re usually super fit and healthy and are well looked after.
‘The dogs don’t really suffer. It’s their human counterpart that suffers, because they’ve got a dog and can’t get in a lot of the services offered to homeless people because they don’t accept dogs. We tend to find these people often feed the dog before themselves. We’ve got a guy in Newcastle who’s been living in a tent for three years because he can’t get in anywhere with his dog; but his dog gets good exercise, he’s with him 24/7 receiving constant love, and is really well looked after.’
It’s safe to say that all of Michelle’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s received several awards for her dedicated work, from the British Citizens Award and the Social Change Award, to being invited to the Women of the Year event, which shines a light on the incredible achievements by women all across the UK. And while she remains humble, Michelle is over the moon to be recognised – as it helps to spread awareness. (Listen to Michelle podcast with Women of the Year here)
So, what can we do to help support Street Paws’ selfless work? Michelle asks us to spread the story of what the charity do far and wide, set up fundraisers ourselves and collect items that her team can hand out on the streets of Newcastle and Sunderland. These items can include:
- Poo bags
- Dog food
- Dog treats
- Warm dog coats
- Collars and leads
And with Christmas just around the corner, Michelle has set up her festive fundraiser. Street Paws have launched their I Believe in Santa Paws Gift Box for dogs, where you can treat your furry family member whilst supporting a dog to enter temporary accommodation with its owner this Christmas. Check them out here.