Inner West Independent

Helping hand for the homeless and their pooches too

Living Ruff is an initiative of the RSPCA to help homeless people care for their pets. Credit: Paul Clark



It’s a weekday morning and Martin Place is bustling. Men donning business suits people walk briskly, tourists stroll. The routine hum of the city is punctuated every now and again by massive bangs from a construction site opposite the Reserve Bank.


Many of the tourists are looking towards this construction site, but not at the development work. They’re looking at the camp of homeless people called ‘Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space’, which is sheltered under the construction scaffolding.


Some people appear curious about the messages written on chalk boards, providing information for homeless people about essential services. At least a few passersby seem to think the street kitchen might be a regular café, because of the utensils set up with food stored nearby. However, the makeshift beds neatly lined up along the walls quickly indicate that this isn’t a cafe.


Where there are homeless people there are homeless pets, too. There aren’t any pets obvious inside the Safe Space but they are around the area in various places, usually in a patch of autumn sun. One man sitting in Pitt St mall with his staffy cross says he sleeps in the Safe Space or Belmore Park. He is dressed in rags, but his 2-year-old dog Roxanne is neatly groomed and dressed in a nice cold weather coat. Like most other dogs, she just wants a pat. It’s unclear how often people stop to chat, but a few people stopped and took a photo while this writer was there chatting to the man and his dog.


There’s no official number for how many pets are living with homeless owners around Sydney. What is accepted is that dogs or other pets provide essential support and companionship to the homeless.


The RSPCA said companion animals can offer significant consolation for homeless people.


“We strongly believe in the mental, emotional and physical benefits of the relationships between people and pets. For some homeless people, their pet is often the only positive thing in their lives and the idea of having to give up their pet can cause major distress to someone who is already suffering hardship,” they said.


Some short term accommodation is pet friendly, such as the Jewish House crisis centre in Bondi. The kennels there were constructed by Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic as part of their Compassionate Fund to help financially disadvantaged pet owners, Project Hope. Unfortunately for pets and their owners, such accommodation is not always available.


As far as long term accommodation is concerned, the RSPCA says that not all public housing is pet friendly. Similarly, private rental situations are often not pet friendly, and this can make it difficult for owners and pets to be housed together.


“The best thing for any animal is to stay together with the owner,” says the RSPCA Community Outreach Programs Manager. “It’s traumatic being separated.”


The RSPCA operates a program called Living Ruff, which is intended to provide support for people and their pets who are homeless. Living Ruff can provide support such as pet boarding while homeless people are in accommodation that does not accept pets. The program also provides essential help such as veterinary services for pets living on the street.


Living Ruff is a NSW wide initiative, and has been operating for about six years now. As an indication of the need for services like this, Living Ruff’s Community Outreach Programs Manager says that in Sydney, in the last financial year, Living Ruff spent about $70,000 on boarding pets and about $40,000 on vet bills. “We looked after about 150 animals in Sydney in about the last year and a half,” she said.


There’s not a lot of money around to care for pets. The RSPCA does what it can from the resources it has. There are other organisations helping out with pet care, such as Project Hope and Pets in the Park. Pets in the Park, among other services, operates regular clinics for pets belonging to homeless people who have a referral from a welfare agency.


Living Ruff says that the pet owners contribute financially what they are able to, and there are also corporate donations and product drives that contribute to things like pet care pack distribution. “When an owner finds a home and pick up their pet from boarding we like to send them to their new home with some food and bedding, things like that,” says the Community Outreach Programs Manager. “Another thing is to be able to distribute pet food packs at Christmas so pet owners are not going without a meal in order to feed their pet.”


Living Ruff accepts referrals from human welfare agencies, as well as direct contact from people in need. Apart from these methods, the RSPCA arranges periodic outreach sessions in cooperation with the City of Sydney. “There are ‘pet days’ organised in areas where we know there is a need, so that owners can arrange microchipping, desexing or vaccinations,” said Living Ruff.


All the agencies supporting pets work closely with the human welfare agencies, and accept donations through their websites.