Have you ever wished for a guardian angel to watch over you when you’re at your most vulnerable? Well, now we all have one. Lucy Everingham reports...
It was like any other Saturday night in Manchester City centre. At 4 O’clock in the morning I stood back to witness what could only be described as a mass exodus of people from the nearby clubs. Soon enough the pavements began filling up with bare footed girls, heels and pizza in hand, closely followed by guys on phones desperately trying to dial a taxi. It was not a sight I was unfamiliar with, just one I had not seen stone cold sober before.
As the crowds slowly started to filter down, with many people staggering into awaiting taxis, the real problems started to appear. Heavily intoxicated women lined shop windows with heads in their hands, many of them with half open eyes and throwing up.
Men displayed heated arguments in the middle of the street resulting in a drunken scuffle and mindlessly dodging beeping cars. It was a shameful sight. One which would put anyone off drinking too much, if they could only see themselves like this.
One girl was in a notably bad state. After vomiting on the floor outside the Arndale Centre, she picked herself up and began to zig-zag down the road, alone. As she turned to walk down a dark alley way I noticed she wasn’t completely by herself, a man was following her.
However, just before the man could approach her, a Street Angel emerged at the other end of the alley way in a high visibility vest and holding a hot cup of coffee. The man fled as the Street Angel offered the intoxicated girl a hot drink to help sober up and guided her to the well lit street before calling her a licensed taxi. A potentially traumatic situation was avoided.
Street Angels are all volunteers. The church-led group have been selflessly patrolling the streets of Manchester every Friday and Saturday night since 2006. Uniformed in the trademark high-vis clothing, they offer care and love to people in their time of need. The needs could be a result of homelessness, intoxication, drug abuse, assault or any other issue which has caused personal distress or the potential for physical harm. They help people regardless of who they are or whatever situation they are in and by walking the streets in the early hours, they aim to make the city a safer place at night.
The organization began in Halifax in 2005 and now covers over 100 towns and cities across the UK.
Paul Blakey, the founder of the Street Angels, believes the work they do is essential to providing a happier and safer environment in which people can enjoy.
“Initially it was seeing a need in the town and thinking what can be done? Often there are issues behind drinking and if Street Angels can show care, love and offer help at-that-time then it shows the person they are worth something, even when they are a mess. As a Christian project, our motivation is that God sees the worth and value in every-single person, whatever mess they are in.
We need to show that through our actions toward them.”
The Street Angels have assisted over 2,000 people in the past 7 years of work. Due to the violent crime being reduced significantly, the police have formed a strong partnership and have subsequently launched Street Angels in all major towns and cities. In Halifax alone crime has reduced by 42% and the local police cite the Angels as the main reason for the drop.
“I had seen first hand the problems at night time when violence, binge drinking, sexual assaults and under age drinking were common in the town centre with between 6-12,000 clubbers on a weekend. The town had become a no-go area for the majority of people. I suggested ideas around this; initially thinking a cafe run jointly with YMCA in the town centre could be a safe place to drop-in. The church agreed. I approached the police who fully supported the idea and within two weeks after the first meeting with the police, we launched. Fifty volunteers turned up on the first night, too many for our cafe, so we sent patrols out into the town, thus Street Angels was born.”
The project runs in Manchester every Friday and Saturday night from 9pm till 3am. The Angels also patrol other busy nights such as Bank Holiday Sunday's and New Year's Eve, whereas other towns vary according to local needs and the availability of volunteers.
During the past seven years of volunteering, Blakey has had to deal with his fair share of difficult situations.
“In the early days we regularly saw large fights, bottles used as weapons, bottles flying into crowds, etc. It is also bad when you see girls obviously spiked and the effects on them. We have also had to deal with several serious injuries; a man forcefully pushed down the stairs of a club where our volunteers got him breathing again seconds after it happened (6 weeks later he came out of his coma) and a young girl with an illness who drank and collapsed on the floor of a pub. Our Street Angel volunteers managed to get her breathing and although she died the next day, at least it was with her family around her and not on the floor of a pub.”
Lynsey Mackay, a student from Manchester, was on a night out when her vision became blurred. Unable to find her friends, she managed to exit the club and attempted to make a phone call outside. Feeling nauseous and slightly intoxicated she collapsed on the pavement.
“I just blacked out, I don’t remember anything. Everything just stopped.”
After falling unconscious, Mackay was finally awoken by a Street Angel who offered her a cup of water and called her an ambulance.
“I just remember opening my eyes, no idea where I was and seeing a bright yellow jacket. At first I thought it was a paramedic as they were reassuring me that everything was going to be OK. It was only until they told me that they had called an ambulance that I realized who it was.”
“I honestly dread to think what could have happened had the Street Angels not been around that night. It sends shivers down my spine thinking about it, but it could have turned out a lot worse. I cannot begin to thank the Street Angels enough for how much they helped me and for the work that they do for others. It is so commendable, especially that they do it all for nothing.”
Mackay was eventually checked over by the paramedics who diagnosed her situation as a lack of sugar combined with over heating in a packed club, which caused her to faint. The Street Angel then took her to the Nexus Night Cafe, gave her a cup of hot sweet tea and a cookie, called her a taxi and made sure she was able to get home OK.
“I have never felt so safe in such a difficult situation. I have decided to volunteer a few nights at the cafe so that I am able to give someone back the same safety net I had.”
The Nexus Night Cafe is the focal point for all Street Angels in Manchester. It is located on Dale Street in the Northern Quarter and is run solely by volunteers. Being a non profit ‘creative community space’, it gives the Street Angels a place to meet and take vulnerable people as it works towards building a strong community and celebrates the creativity within Manchester. It prides itself on being a place in which anyone is accepted, whatever the background or situation and aims to guide those in need by making sure they do not feel alone. People volunteer to cook, serve, assist with art exhibitions and help develop the community garden.
Blakey has gained much job satisfaction from volunteering over the years. He explains what makes the work he does worthwhile.
“Those who we have helped and decide to change because we have helped them reminds me of why I do this. For example; the 14 year old girl who gave up drinking in town. She had been doing this every weekend since she was 12 and has now decided to settle down at school and restore family relationships. She has gone on to achieve GCSEs, A-Levels and attend University. She realized how much of a mess her life was when she was getting drunk and having to be carried through town by us to get her safely with her friends.”
Street Angels received Duke of York’s community initiative awards in October 2007, presented by HRH Prince Andrew at an Awards event in Conisburgh, Doncaster.
Although Street Angels is a non profit, voluntary project, it is reliant on donations from the public so that it can function properly.
“What we do on the streets is voluntary but many towns do have a project coordinator and all areas need first aid equipment, tea, coffee, use of a room, uniforms, etc. If you would like to donate, please do so by visiting www.wehelpedu.org.uk and leave a message if you would like the funds to go to a specific local project.”
Street Angels now run in Bolton, Oldham, Macclesfield and the city centre in the Manchester area and a similar organization of Street Pastors run in many estates across Greater Manchester. A full list of all the covered areas is on www.sa-cni.org.uk.
The kind work of the Street Angels has not gone unrecognized by the people who have been helped by their nightly presence on a weekend.
“We receive many thank you’s by email, Facebook, Twitter, cards, phone calls and calling in to the cafe base to thank us, sometimes bringing chocolates, biscuits or money!”
However, this is just the beginning for the project. The vision is to see more and more communities go from ‘binge to better.’
“We want to see more local projects set up and we are looking into Festival Angels for music festivals. Also there is the possibility of taking teams of Angels to European clubbing spots to run the project abroad.”
With a conference planned in August to bring people from local projects together, the Street Angels are looking at expanding by creating an accredited training option for volunteers so that it will be possible to gain a qualification by volunteering.
Lynsey Mackay believes,
“If there were more Angels in this world, the planet would be a much happier, safer and more compassionate place in which to live.”