Huddersfield Street Angels celebrate 10 years patrolling the town's nightlife
The Street Angels movement began in the ‘Wild West of Yorkshire’ and is now a national, soon-to-be-international, phenomenon. Hilarie Stelfox meets the Huddersfield Street Angels as they celebrate their 10th anniversary.
It takes a special kind of volunteer commitment to spend Saturday nights patrolling the streets of Huddersfield dressed in a high-vis jacket and keeping a watchful eye over those out enjoying themselves.
But from 10pm until 2am every week that’s exactly what the Huddersfield Street Angels do.
Trained in first aid and drug awareness; equipped with space blankets, bottles of water and Kit-Kats, the unpaid angels are a comforting and helpful presence in the town centre.
They’re not there to break up fights, deal with violent situations or arrest wrong-doers, they’re there to scrape up revellers who’ve had far too much to drink; defuse potentially difficult situations and summon an ambulance if needed. It’s not uncommon for them to call a taxi to ensure that the severely-inebriated get home safely. They supply slippers to women tottering about in painful high heels and give out ‘spikeys’ (bottle tops to prevent drink spiking) to drinkers. Over the past decade their presence has proved to be a factor in reducing crime in the town centre.
Dianne Hughes from Emley, a long-serving angel and trained nurse, explains: “We are going out to see that people are safe. We walk around the pubs and clubs just to see if everything is going OK. We have CCTV links and if we spot something we have buzzers to get the attention of the police. We are an extra pair of eyes for the police.”
The Street Angels movement was launched in Halifax in 2005 by Paul Blakey MBE, who is also a founder of Christian Nightlife Initiatives. It was, he says, an idea that grew out of his desire to do something about the “Wild West of Yorkshire reputation” that his home town had acquired. He added: “Violence, sexual assaults and binge drinking were all common on the streets of Halifax and Sowerby Bridge on Friday and Saturday nights. There are now 130 projects around the country inside night clubs, on the streets and in festivals. One of the hallmarks of the projects is that violent crime and anti-social behaviour is reduced, often by a half, and in some areas by as much as 60 or 70%.” He recently travelled to North Carolina, USA, where church communities are interested in starting their own street angel groups.
Huddersfield Street Angels came into being in 2007. The Rev Orlando Brown, pastor of the New Testament Church of God and a founder member explained: “It was The Examiner that got the ball rolling. There was a feature about knife and gun crime asking ‘what are the churches doing about it?’ What were the churches doing to keep the streets safe? And that’s how we got involved. At first we were the Street Pastors but then we heard about the street angels in Halifax and thought we’d join them rather than be independent. We went to the police and asked them what we could do; and got a Home Office grant and help from West Yorkshire Police and Kirklees. In the first year crime in the town centre at weekends was down by 25%.”
While the street angels belong to a Huddersfield Churches Together partnership and most members are church goers, not all volunteers have a strongly-Christian background. And although theirs is a Christian presence on the streets – with each evening patrol beginning with prayers – they don’t preach or attempt to convert those they encounter. The Huddersfield group has members aged from 18 to nearly 80 and would like more volunteers to come forward. The group began with 40 volunteers but has dwindled down to less than 20 active angels.
In the decade since the angels began patrolling Huddersfield they’ve seen changes for the better. As Dianne says: “We don’t see a lot of trouble and most people who get injured have fallen over when drunk or from having their drinks spiked. What we do see is a lot of kindness – bunches of girls out on the town are quite kind to the homeless people they see, and they help and look after each other.” And their own angel kindnesses are appreciated. “We get calls from people the next day to thank us for helping to get them home safely, “ she added.
The youngest street angel, Rebecca Swallow, 18, became involved when doing community service for part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and has continued going out with the group at weekends. She believes one of the reasons why town centres have become less ‘wild’ is that younger people are consuming more alcohol at home and not venturing out to bars as much as they once did.
This view is supported by Paul Blakey, who says: “It’s cheaper to buy alcohol from the corner shop or supermarket and more people are drinking at home. But I also think that people are thinking about the cost of alcohol and saving up for holidays and things like that. There’s been a cultural shift about alcohol and people are aware of the health and fitness issues.”
Today’s street angels, he adds, are focussed on the more vulnerable members of society – including elderly drinkers and the homeless.
While street angels often witness unruly, drunken behaviour they also see much that is good. As Dianne explains: “We go to Leeds Fest every year and run a lost property tent. We get thousands of items - expensive phones and wallets with money handed in. The people who get them back are astounded, but there is a lot of honesty.”
* Huddersfield Street Angels are celebrating their 10th anniversary with a Thanksgiving Service at the New Testament Church of God in Great Northern Street on Saturday, May 13, from 6pm. The service will be followed by supper and all street angels, past and present, are invited. Anyone who would like to know more about the organisation and how to join should call 07811 182347.