'That dog helped me with my anxiety, my depression, everything'
Many people offset the pain of homelessness by keeping a pet – mostly dogs, but also cats, rabbits, and an iguana
Sabrina and Joe with their dog Cindy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Pets offer comfort, security and companionship to people who are on the streets but they can also make it difficult for them to find accommodation.
A year ago Mary Kelly was sitting by her tent in an old mill in Phibsborough when a man named Spud jumped over the wall. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’m only having a smoke.”
“Work away,” said Mary. “Just clean up and no fires.” Mary has a terrible fear of fire. She lost close relatives in the halting site fire in Carrickmines and her tent had been maliciously burned in the past.
Spud had his smoke, Mary says, “and as he was leaving, he said ‘Do you want a dog?’ I said ‘Yeah! But not a big shaped dog, a nice normal dog.’”
A week later, Mary and her fiancé Paulie Maughan were sitting in their tent (there’s very little to do, she says, when you’re homeless and trying to steer clear of heroin) when a little face poked in. It was a Jack Russell named Scooter and Spud was behind him. “He just jumped right up and into my lap and licked my face. I said, ‘Alright Spud, I’ll have him, thanks.’”
Scooter is thirteen months old now and as we talk he’s sitting at my feet, chewing my boot. “We think he’s still teething,” says Paulie. Paulie and Mary love Scooter. “He’s my baby,” says Mary. “Who wants Sudocrem on his belly?” Scooter flips over on to his back in anticipation.
Many homeless people have pets, says Dublin Simon’s senior manager for emergency services, Claire McSweeney. It’s usually dogs, she says, but she knows of a few rabbits and one iguana.
Stephanie Lordan, a Simon Community outreach worker, tells me about an older man who lives in the Phoenix Park with several cats. “It’s like a Disney film sometimes,” says Lordan. “There are deer there too.”
Back in 2014, with engagement from the Dogs Trust, Dublin Simon started offering a limited number of emergency beds to pet owners, because people who loved their animals were losing housing opportunities rather than leave them behind.
“They get their dogs for companionship and protection,” says McSweeney. “They don’t leave the dog for a second. They’re not going into work and leaving it at home. They look after their animals very well. They have a deep bond. They trust them more than anyone.”
Mary, Paulie and Scooter have been in supported temporary accommodation with Dublin Simon on Harcourt Street for two months and have, more recently, been offered a permanent ground floor flat with a garden through the Housing First scheme (overseen by the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland).
Scooter is a distinctive looking dog. He has none of the brown markings around the eyes that are typical of Jack Russells. “He should be a model,” says Mary and she laughs.
‘Scooter helped me with everything’
Paulie and Mary are from Dublin and Wicklow respectively and have been homeless for two-and-a-half years. Paulie was kicked out of his sister’s flat for using heroin. Mary, who spent much of her childhood in care, was trying to escape a controlling, abusive family situation.
They have lived in different places around the city, including in an abandoned mill, by the Royal Canal, under a bridge near Connolly Station and in a copse of trees.
“Have you ever seen [the fantasy film] Willow with all the little people?” asks Paulie. “It was like that. All the trees were folded over and there were little slots where you could put your tent. But one day I put my head out and there was a bulldozer pulling the trees down. I was like ‘Hey there’s someone living here!’”
They stopped taking heroin and went on methadone when Paulie’s mother was dying. “I promised my Ma when I found out she had ‘the C’ – I hate saying the full word. . .She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, please get yourself off this stuff.’ I have never broken that promise.”
It was around this time that Scooter came into their lives. He quickly took to climbing into bed with them at night, even though they’d put a doggy bed at the end of the tent.
At night he sucks on Mary’s fingers and toes. “He’s like those fish in Japan that clean your feet,” she says. “And he snores. At first I thought it was Paulie. You know what? I think he’s a human. . . He loves chewing my socks, my glasses. . . He has better teeth than me because he chewed the gum shield I have for teeth whitening. Then he gets up and licks me as if he’s saying ‘Sorry, sorry’.” He licks her now.
Is Scooter a good guard dog? They laugh. “He doesn’t really bark that much,” says Paulie.
“But if anyone came near, Scooter would jump up and stare out,” says Mary.
Does he help them? “You know what? That dog helped me with my anxiety, my depression, everything.”
“This girl has been broken down,” says Paulie tenderly.
‘Scooter helps us grieve’
Mary talks about the things they’ve both been through: violence, abuse, many bereavements, family estrangement. They both have scars from self-harm on their arms, though Paulie’s are covered by a tattoo of a cross. He has another tattoo of a deceased brother’s name. A second brother lived with them on the streets for a short while before he took his own life.
Mary says that sometimes she looks at Paulie and he’s just staring at a picture of his mother on his phone. “Scooter helps us grieve,” says Paulie. “At night time he curls up beside me and it’s so unbelievable what a dog can do to someone . . . It’s someone to care for . . .
“Even though he’s a dog, to me he’s a person. He’s got a heart. He has feelings. He talks but in barks.”
One day when they were still in the tent, Scooter went missing and Mary was inconsolable. They made flyers and distributed them. “A woman got in contact and said, ‘I was in the dog pound and I think they have your dog…’ I had a tenner in my pocket and jumped into the taxi, but they said it would cost €250 to get him back. I started crying like a baby. ‘I rang the council and said ‘I’m living in the tent. . . I can get €40 or €50.’ They rang me the next day and said ‘We’ve good news. We’ll give him to you for 40’. I walked from Phibsborough all the way to Ashtown and got him back.”
Paulie and Mary were being worn down by life on the street – the cold, the boredom, the rough ground on their bones, the effect of bending down repeatedly to climb into a tent. One night recently the skies opened and flooded them. “We woke up and were just floating,” says Paulie.
As Mary pumped their deflated airbed in the rain with Scooter wrapped in a sleeping bag on her lap, Paulie said, “Mary, I can’t do it anymore”. He’d hit his breaking point.
The next day, out of pure luck, they were offered a place in Harcourt Street, and shortly afterwards, an apartment that would take a dog. McSweeney says that this is unusually fortunate for a homeless couple with a pet.
They had spent the previous year unable to go to shelters or hostels for fear of coming in contact with heroin or of having to leave Scooter behind. “If they couldn’t take Scooter I wouldn’t leave him,” says Mary. “He just wants to be with us. And he hates the cold.”
Cindy the Jack Russell
“A lot of the people we work with would treat their dogs better than they treat themselves really,” says Brian Gilmore of the Dublin Simon Community’s Rough Sleeper Team. “I’ve seen people walk miles to bring a pet to the vet when they wouldn’t go to the doctor themselves.”
Gilmore drives me to a suburb on the edge of Dublin, where we climb over a stone wall and into a little wooded area. There, in a tent, we find Joe Kinsella, Sabrina Arbuthnot and a Jack Russell called Cindy. The ground is boggy and wet and the tent is filled with bedding and belongings.
In the entrances there’s a gas stove and some boxes of tea, tins of food, a big bottle of water and some alcohol (Joe, for the record, says he has been off drink for some time). There are two Irish flags on a line next to the tent which they put up last St Patrick’s Day. The tent itself has withstood several storms and has a few patches holding it together. They share the field with a pheasant they call Tom and, every morning, some deer. “They come right up to the tent,” says Sabrina.
They’re well known in the nearby town centre and – some cruel, name-calling youths aside – people there are kind to them. One couple who live nearby come every evening with two hot water bottles and a flask of tea. “The man saw our tent from the bus,” says Joe. “He comes every night and now he’s away, so his girlfriend comes.”
“He even gave me this for Cindy,” says Sabrina, showing me a very clean, fresh-looking dog blanket. Cindy also owns a bandana with the word “spoiled” written on it.
Unlike Scooter, Cindy is a very vocal guard dog. “When you’re around here that’s important because she’s like an alarm,” says Joe. “Day or night she’s on alert.” He chuckles. “She’s looking for overtime but we’re not paying her.”
Cindy has unusual little brown markings around her flanks. When they bought her, from a man they met in the city centre, she was all skin and bone but they fed her up. “We had to coax her to eat, but now she’s a gorgeous little thing,” says Sabrina.
“She’s very nervous,” says Joe. “She hates bangers. Sometimes even the church bell.”
“She doesn’t like the bells on the Luas either,” says Sabrina.
The stolen Chihuahua
Cindy wasn’t their only dog. At one point, Joe bought a Chihuahua from two men but a family came by and said that it had been stolen from a little autistic boy.
“Sabrina started crying because she’d fallen in love with him and the other lady started crying and that was it,” says Joe. “So the dog went. And I thought that was the end of it but a couple of days later they bought us this tent.”
“Then they put us into Jury’s hotel for a whole week of Christmas,” says Sabrina, “for taking care of the dog so well.”
Joe roots around and finds a local newspaper clipping telling this story. Both Joe and Sabrina have been homeless on and off for a long time. For a while they had a flat together, but they were evicted along with everyone else from the building.
“He never gave any of us our deposits,” says Joe. “We just slipped down then. The few gargles got us a bit more than usual and we went on the slippy slope. Got fed up trying. Just spent our money on drink. It was a way to get through the day, coping. We were on the boardwalk and that’s as far as you go, so we thought we’d get a tent and do better. This is better. At least we’re dry.”
They have been here for a year-and-a-half and one of them always stays at the tent for fear that the council will come and throw all of their possessions away. They get regular visits from the Simon Community and Focus Ireland but Sabrina won’t go anywhere that won’t take Cindy. “It’d break my heart if I had to let her go,” she says.
“If she had a choice, I would be out and the dog would be in,” says Joe. “But Cindy’s a great little thing. All she wants is for you to love her . . . She gives us company and pleasure and a bit of security at night because it’s very isolated . . . It’s a bit of a responsibility too. We get up to go for a walk with her otherwise we might just lie here.”
“She gives you a lick on the hand every morning to wake you,” says Sabrina.
What does she eat? “Pedigree Chum, sausages, curry,” says Sabrina. “I love her to bits, don’t I Cindy?”