A group of volunteer vets and veterinary nurses are working hard to ensure the pets of Belfast’s homeless and most vulnerable people stay healthy.
treet Paws Belfast runs a monthly outreach service to give dogs who are living on the streets or in hostels vital veterinary care.
The team offer vaccinations, health checks, worming and flea treatments, as well as treating any injuries or illnesses.
Lauren Collins founded Street Paws Belfast as the first Northern Ireland branch of UK charity Street Paws. She is a vet at Braemar Veterinary Clinic on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.
On the first Monday of every month Lauren and other volunteers join up with Reaching Out Homeless and Community Support at their Tomb Street outreach post.
“These dogs are very much loved; we often see people who are homeless looking after their pets better than themselves,” says Lauren. “They will go without food just so that their dog can eat.
“At first people can be a bit suspicious, worried that we might be there to take their dogs off them, but that’s absolutely not the case. We aren’t there to judge — we’re just there to help.”
Lauren founded Street Paws Belfast and became the local branch co-ordinator in 2018 after a call with charity’s headquarters in England.
The main charity — Street Paws — pays for all the equipment and medications that Lauren and her fellow volunteers need to treat their homeless patients. She now has a team of around 10 regular volunteers — all vets or veterinary nurses willing to give up their time.
As well as manning the monthly outreach in Tomb Street, they are able to respond to calls from local hostels or drop medication off to homeless owners when required.
Services had to be put on hold during the Covid lockdowns but the volunteers are now happy to be back out on the streets helping homeless people and their beloved pets.
“A lot of what we do is preventative,” explains Lauren. “We do a lot of health check-ups, just to give the owners peace of mind, and offer things like vaccinations and worming that those dogs otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
“We do a nose-to-tail check over and now people know to look out for us they do come back to us time and time again, so we have some regular patients, which is really nice.”
Lauren says one of the most satisfying parts of her volunteering is being able to make a real impact on the lives of the animals they see.
“We were recently able to give a puppy its vital first vaccinations, which was really satisfying because now we know it’s had that important protection,” she says.
“Another case that stands out is helping a lovely wee dog living in one of the hostels that had a nasty skin condition. We were able to get it the antibiotics it needed.
“Generally speaking, the dogs we see are very well looked after by their homeless owners and really none the worse for living on the streets. We’re often remarking how good their teeth are.”
Recently Street Paws stepped in to help a hostel dog called Sooty, who turned out to have a tumour on one of her ovaries. Lauren was able to operate on her at Braemar Veterinary Clinic, with the surgery covered by the charity, and Sooty is now on her way to recovery.
Street Paws Belfast works in partnership with another local charity, Play For Strays, which also offers outreach in Tomb Street, providing food, leads and toys for homeless dogs.
The outreach tables are run by Reaching Out Homeless and Community Support, which is the brainchild of good Samaritan Roz Algie.
She and her team of volunteers have been supporting Belfast’s homeless for years and she says she’s delighted to be able to help their pets too, thanks to Street Paws.
“Quite a few of the people we support would have dogs and honestly they love their animals so much. They say a dog is man’s best friend, but if you’re sleeping in a doorway that dog might be your only friend, protection and company,” she says.
“I’ve often seen people giving their last bit of food to their dogs, rather than eating it themselves. So for Street Paws to be supporting them, giving the dogs their yearly jabs, worm treatments and things like that, is brilliant.”
Roz’s organisation run their Tomb Street outreach each Monday evening from 8pm, giving out hot food and drinks, toiletries and other necessities. On the first Monday of every month there is also a podiatrist on hand to help anyone with sore feet.
Roz says that the pandemic has had a huge impact on people living in poverty.
“We feed and support 50-70 people every Monday night without fail,” she says. “There was a time during the lockdowns when there was funding to offer homeless people shelter in places like B&Bs, but that’s coming to an end now so we’re seeing more people on the streets again.
“We’ve also had a lot of people coming to us for help who aren’t technically homeless, but they are struggling with poverty as a result of the pandemic and the rising cost of living.
“Over the last year or so we’ve actually expanded our services to try to support those people too.”
Roz and her team now run two emergency food banks, with drop-off points at Cregagh Methodist Church, on Cregagh Road, and Beaver and Milltown Community Hub. They also run a baby bank, distributing donations of baby food and nappies, wipes and even equipment like prams and Moses baskets to those in need.
“There are so many more people in need of the likes of emergency food parcels,” she adds. “People are struggling, and I think it’s only going to get worse. We’re trying to do whatever we can to help.”
For more information on Street Paws Belfast, visit streetpaws.co.uk. To offer donations or request help from Reaching Out Homeless and Community Support, visit the group’s page on Facebook