St Mungo’s is one of the only organisations to allow dogs in accommodation for homeless people. Paul, who lives in one of our hostels in London with his dog Treacle, shares why she is so important to him.
The first time I saw Treacle she was being carried down to the river by two men. She was the runt of her litter, a tiny little thing no bigger than my hand.
She was so small that one of the men was keeping her in his pocket, her little head poking out.
They were taking her to the river because they couldn’t sell her – they were going to drown her. I couldn’t let that happen.
I offered them £30, which was all I had. That was 12 years ago, and Treacle has been my best friend ever since.
She’s a Staffy crossed with a Beagle. In Victorian times, they used to call Staffies ‘nanny dogs’ because they’d sit with the children and look after them. Nowadays people often think of Staffies as fighting dogs, but naturally they’re very good natured.
They’re just like people really – treat them well and they’ll be happy, treat them badly and things will go wrong. That’s the hardest thing about being on the streets, the way people treat you. Especially when they’ve had a drink. I’ve had people swear at me, try to start a fight, even urinate on me once or twice. It makes you feel like you’re not human, not even worthy of basic respect.
One of my friends, who also lived on the streets, got beaten up by a group of men who were on their way home from the pub. The next day, he suddenly fell over out of the blue. He hadn’t realised that his brain had been damaged in the fight, and he died from a brain aneurysm.
A whole life lost just because a few drunk guys fancied a fight. Treacle protected me from people like that. But she’s not just there for protection, she’s my friend. We look after each other.
When I was selling the Big Issue, someone offered me £1000 for Treacle but I wouldn’t take it. You could write me a blank cheque and I still wouldn’t take it, she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Sometimes, when I was living on the streets, people would say to me “you shouldn’t have a dog, you can’t even look after yourself.” But Treacle never minded where we slept – whether we were in a tent or a doorway, she’d be happy as long as she was with me. Treacle settles me and gives me a sense of belonging that I’ve never had before.
Growing up my family moved around a lot. My dad and his brothers were in the army, the whole family in the same regiment. My favourite of all the places we lived was Bavaria in Germany, in amongst the mountains and the snow. It was beautiful, on the surface. I went to a military boarding school which I hated.
The teachers were really strict and I didn’t get on with anyone, I bunked off for most of my last two years and got in a lot of trouble. Life at home was strict too. My Dad was a Colonel in the Army which is a senior rank. He applied the same rigid structure and discipline he was used to in the Army to our family home.
He was harsh, sometimes violent. That’s all in the past now, but I think that having such an unsettled childhood is the reason I’ve always struggled to settle as an adult.
But looking after Treacle makes me feel grounded, gives me a purpose in life. We’ve been living together in a St Mungo’s hostel for over four years now, which is the longest I’ve ever stayed in the same place. I don’t think people realise just how good a dog can be for your mental health. I think that, for many of the people you see on the streets, their dog is the only thing that keeps them going.
With so many homeless people owning dogs, you’d think that hostels and other services would welcome them. But St Mungo’s is one of the only organisations that allow dogs inside their hostels. It’s a big barrier for so many people, because there’s no way they’d give up their dog to come inside. I know I wouldn’t.