Volunteers from the British Hens Welfare Trust with some of their feathered charges

Animal Rescue

15th December 2017

What could hens possibly do for homeless people? That’s something that New Hope, a Watford-based charity that exists to serve those who are homeless or vulnerably housed, have been exploring, and to great success. They’re not the only ones who have animals at the centre of their work, however; charities and organisations across the region are realising the vital part that pets and animals can play in rehabilitation.
Francesca Baker reports…

New Hope was founded in 1990 by two self-styled ‘ordinary house-wives’, Janet Hosier and Sheila Meaning, who saw the many people sleeping rough around St Mary’s Church in the centre of Watford and felt moved to act. On the site of an old banana factory on Whippendell Road, they set up coaches with a counter, a hob and some benches. Teams of volunteers served soup, hot drinks and sandwiches to those in need, and, from the beginning, placed a strong emphasis on offering friendship and a listening ear alongside practical support.

That principle continues to underpin the organisation. Today, New Hope is one of the largest providers of homelessness services in the Home Counties, housing up to 60 people every night and supporting hundreds more every year. Their work, encapsulated in the strapline ‘preventing homelessness, transforming lives’ is varied and extensive, and includes a Community Market Garden, poetry writing and discussion groups, art and textile activities, woodwork, bricklaying, music and fireside and life skill sessions – and Hens for the Homeless.

Animals are often used as support and therapy in difficult situations, and in August 2015, New Hope decided to ‘adopt’ four ex-commercial hens via the British Hen Welfare Trust, who re-home around fifty thousand hens per year. The idea of giving the hens the chance of a better life has certain parallels with what the charity tries to offer its service users. The two current feathered residents, Florence and Hope, continue to be at the centre of many of New Hope’s activities. As well as providing delicious eggs used in the cooking sessions, the ‘girls’ as they are affectionately known, deliver many benefits to the service users.

Sometimes this is very simple. Ian Bond, Community Market Garden supervisor explains that they bring “relief and humour as they scratch the ground for insects or chase rain drops which trail down the mesh of the coop.” He tells me about a lady who enjoyed walking the girls round the garden so much that she started uncovering stones to provide welcome snacks for them as she went. Another service user ‘overcame a fear of hens when she lifted one up and stroked her’. It’s a simple thing, but it was transformative. ‘From that point forward she started using the eggs to bake cakes that she shared with the garden team to enjoy during our 11.30 tea breaks.’ The hens have even provided creative inspiration for poetry and embroidery.

New Hope finds that some service users are reluctant to engage with people, having been judged and treated harshly in the past. “To those who have experienced this, the hens – non-judgemental and friendly – provide an acceptance that is revitalising and can promote recovery,” says Ian.

The British Hens Welfare Trust has a nationwide team of over 450 volunteers, and has found pet homes for more than 600,000 hens since beginning in 2005. “From our point of view, hens as therapy is something we feel has huge potential to expand,” says Francesca Taffs, Communications and Marketing officer at the organisation. “Anecdotally, we regularly hear from people who tell us their hens have eased their suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It’s clear hen-keeping is incredibly therapeutic and offers a release from the stresses and strains of daily life.”

As well as New Hope, they’ve worked with and provided hens for The Amber Foundation, a charity in Okehampton, Devon, who provide supported housing for homeless and unemployed people aged 17-30. Just like at New Hope, they’ve made a big difference. “I’m really glad that we’ve got the chickens,” says one Amber resident. “It’s a fantastic hobby and helps to keep my mind occupied. They’re funny too; I was putting them away last night, said goodnight and they answered back!”

British Hens Welfare Trust has also supported Colchester’s Dedham Farm, an organisation using individual or group animal therapy to help people recover from a variety of life challenges such as autism, anxiety and various learning difficulties, and provided hens to More Care Design Collective in Buxton, who offer one-to-one learning workshop sessions for people who suffer from learning difficulties and require personal care.

It’s evident that animals can be sources of love and support, and a way to reduce the social isolation common amongst many people who are homeless. They provide purpose and responsibility, and can encourage more positive coping mechanisms.

The St Mungo’s charity runs more than 300 projects and each night offers a bed and support to more than 2,700 people – including from their location in Watford. They recognise the importance that animals offer to homeless people, and are one of the few homeless charities to house dogs alongside their owners. A spokesperson from the charity explains that they have been welcoming dogs into their projects for 20 years. “We take dogs often because they are our client’s best friend and help in their recovery. Many clients would not take up a hostel place if their dog couldn’t come and that would leave them unable to access many services available to them. St Mungo’s vision is that everyone has a place to call home and can fulfil their hopes and ambitions.”

Dogs on the Streets, a not-for-profit organisation supporting London’s dog-owning homeless community, works to look after both the homeless person and their animal, by providing the food, vet care, basic grooming, behavioural training and housing support that they might need. Michelle Clark started donating to and supporting the local homeless population in 2011, and in March 2017 launched the Dogs on the Streets stations. Teams of vets, vet nurses, groomers, trainers, weight management consultants and general volunteers come together on certain days of the week to provide a free service which the homeless community can access. The provision of such services allows homeless individuals to keep their animals, as they are often reliant upon them.

It’s clear to Michelle that dogs offer an emotional lifeline to homeless individuals. “Living day in, day out on the streets, and often being invisible to people, has a huge impact on mental health and wellbeing. Having a dog gives individuals a sense of purpose, companionship and responsibility.” In some cases, the animal is deemed to be a life saver, offering purpose and security. “Many say to me their dogs have saved their lives, and rescued them,” says Michelle. “Having a dog with them all day and night not only offers companionship and worth, but a reason to carry on living in such awful circumstances.”

Academics agree on the value of animals for supporting homeless people. In her 2013 study, Leslie Irvine, a University of Colorado sociologist and author of My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals, writes that ‘Animals become vehicles for redemption… they encourage a sense of responsibility and allow for the construction of a positive moral identity.’ A 2016 study from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph found that homeless youths with pets were less likely to be depressed and engaged in harmful behaviours and drug use.

Animals offer a route through which lives can be changed. Whether it’s through the practical work of caring and tending for them, the companionship they offer, or by providing a focus away from daily difficulties, there’s tremendous scope for more animal assisted interventions and opportunities for the homeless community. Whether it’s dogs, horses or hens, animals really do offer new hope.

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