As the Street Angels give advice to students about keeping safe at night, Neil Johnston joins them in York on one of their nightly patrols of the city
“I do believe our presence on the street really does make a difference.” These are the words of Dick Syms, the chairman of York Street Angels, a voluntary group which helps the vulnerable late at night in York.
Dick, 73, and two other Angels, Laura 26, and Jacqui 44, have had an eventful night. They are part of a group of 50 who do this regularly, including some students from the two universities in the city.
They are just one of a network of groups like this across the country, with the Street Angels also operating in larger cities such as Leeds and Newcastle
In York, the appreciation for the group among late night revellers is clear. “Are you the Street Angels, I really appreciate what you do,” says one. “You’re brilliant, it’s amazing that you do this voluntarily,” says another.
The work the Angels do varies from the simple but extremely popular idea of handing out flip-flops to girls carrying their heels, to helping those who have lost control due to alcohol.
York has been shaken by tragedies in recent months with the river deaths of students Megan Roberts and Ben Clarkson, and, more recently, soldier Tyler Pearson whose body was discovered in April.
The Angels know all too well the dangers of the river. Dick explains how he recently spoke to two young girls who were wandering unsteadily near the water's edge, while Laura has seen tragedy unfold first hand:
“Two years ago there was someone who fell in [the river] after walking along the bridge parapet. His friends jumped in to save him. They survived, but unfortunately he was too far out and his body was found the next day.
"The ambulances got there in three minutes, but it was three minutes too late. I had to sit out of Street Angels for a bit after that.”
Laura, who is the longest serving of the three Angels, adds: “We are not able to help everyone, but what we do makes a big difference to those who we can.”
The recent tragedies have reignited debate over river safety and at a recent meeting with Julia Mulligan, the Police and Crime Commissioner, numerous options were discussed.
For the Street Angels, two issues that are important are CCTV and better lighting around “hotspot” areas at the river.
Additionally, the Angels are giving advice to the students’ unions at both York St John University and the University of York.
The unions are setting up similar operations to the Street Angels on midweek student nights, educating university students about the dangers of the river and about keeping safe at night.
However, Laura also suggests that part of the issue is who people choose to go out with: “People can often get left on their own when they are out with people who they don’t really know, rather than a close-knit set of friends.”
On their Friday night patrol – which I joined them for – the first person they meet is a long-term homeless man, with a girl who is just 17 and has been out on her own for two years on and off.
The Angels provide comfort and water and check that they have somewhere to stay for the night.
Next, they are approached by a young women from Scarborough. She is out on the streets for the first time since leaving her home. She has nowhere to stay and, unfortunately, it is too late to find a place at the shelter. The Angels do what they can and provide her with foil blankets.
At around midnight, the volunteers head to a bar where they are directed to an alleyway where a man is unconscious. This is a more serious incident and Laura rings an ambulance, later saying that it's only the third time she has had to do so in five years.
This proves to be the most serious situation of the night, and the Angels assist more revellers with bottles of water, helping them up, or even just giving directions home.
For the Angels, it has been a successful shift: they have potentially saved a life and helped many others enjoy their night out. Tomorrow, another group of Angels will do this all over again. Their help will not go unnoticed.
Neil Johnston is a third year Politics student at the University of York @neiljohnston29