From The Fresh Outlook on-line newspaper
Why do people go out of their way to help others as opposed to themselves? What benefits are in it for them? Is gratitude the key to helping and is it always on offer? Here is just one of the many examples of people who help just to help.
Why do you brave the cold, wet weather to go and help others?
PAUL: Street Angels was started as a response to a simple question asked by Churches together in Halifax; "What are the needs in our town and what can the church do to meet those needs?"
At the time, Halifax had a reputation as the Wild West of West Yorkshire - violence, binge drinking and sexual assaults had made our town centre a no-go area on Friday and Saturday nights. In the midst of all this were people who became vulnerable. We asked if volunteers running a safe place café and providing safe people patrols of the town could make a difference. The police supported the trial of this idea and we launched on 25th November 2005.
In the six week trial we came across a number of people and directly helped sixty-nine of them in some way. People could have become victims to sexual or physical assault had Street Angels not stepped in.
In our first year violent crime reduced by forty-two per cent in the town centre, and sexual assaults become rare, rather than the norm. Our motivation is that these are not just figures, but people. As a Christian project we believe that people are created with a plan and purpose, that each life is unique and special - people do get into messy situations from time to time, and if as a fellow human we can help them be safe again, then our role as Street Angels is worth it.
Even though they are are out and about out of choice?
PAUL: Often it is not out of choice - drinks can get spiked, you can become separated from friends, people with less honest motivations can become involved, life can go wrong and you end up drinking or homeless as a way out of the reality. Street Angels offer a non-judgemental approach and even if it is out of choice, often the fact we offer help can alter the choices people make in the future.
How did the idea originate?
ADAM: Bedford Street Angels was born out of the tragic death of a young man, Robert Gill, who died as a result of a mugging and murder on Boxing Day 2007. It was his adoptive parents, Fred and Fran, who asked the churches of the town to explore the possibility of forming a Street Angels project to support the vulnerable who access the night time economy. Bedford Street Angels has been in operation since its launch in February 2009 and the first year celebration was held in March 2010. The project is currently supported by seventeen churches from within the All Bedford Churches Together network.
What is the purpose of the operation?
PAUL: The purpose of Street Angels is to offer a safe place for people in Halifax town centre on Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm - 3am. As other towns and cities across the UK have seen how successful the concept of Street Angels is, we have helped around seventy towns across the UK start Street Angels for themselves.
ADAM: Our aims are similar to existing Street Angel and Street Pastor schemes, of which Portsmouth and Halifax are good examples. Our common aim is to provide unconditional, non-judgemental support and practical help to those who have become vulnerable to crime or distress. It uses the biblical example of the Good Samaritan on which to mould it’s values. There are well over a hundred such schemes across the towns and cities of the UK. All of them have teams of volunteers from local churches and have seen success in reducing violence, antisocial behaviour and fear of crime in their communities.
Where and when exactly do you help?
PAUL: We help in a variety of ways, including:
A safe place Fairtrade Cafe where people can come for tea or coffee, wait for a taxi, call the police or an ambulance if something has gone wrong (for example assault or possessions stolen), come to escape the nightlife or call in for details of other agencies who can offer further help (for example, if someone is found homeless we can put them in touch with other specialist agencies.)
Street Angels patrol the town centre and pick up bottles and glasses, talk to people, offer directions and assistance, alert CCTV and police to potential trouble, walk patrons of the town's theatre to the bus stop or a taxi, offer basic first aid and call for an ambulance, be a visible presence at key points in the town and offer assistance to those who have become vulnerable in a any way.
ADAM: The volunteers don't wear wings or have halos, but a group of Street Angels are helping to reduce violent crime in Bedford town centre. In their distinctive red fleeces, they set out in teams of three to patrol a wide area focusing on the town centre. More often than not, the Street Angels are available to help people, especially the vulnerable; those who may have become isolated from their friends, are on their own waiting for their lift home to arrive or need direction to locate taxi ranks or cash machines. But, the Street Angels are also on hand to help those who have had too much to drink, or wait with folk needing a paramedic.
For churches, this is a great opportunity to put Christian faith into practice in our local communities. By working together across denominational groupings, we can demonstrate our shared desire to make a difference in our locality. Volunteers undergo a comprehensive training programme that should equip them to respond to all sorts of situations in the late night environment. Volunteers must be aged eighteen or over but there is no upper age limit.
Do you find yourself getting emotionally involved?
PAUL: Occasionally, certainly at the start, and new volunteers do - after five years you tend to have seen most things!
What is the best case that you have helped out with?
PAUL: There are several; the thirty-three-year-old woman who emailed to say that because Street Angels had helped her she had decided to change her life around and stop drinking, and with the help of the PCT and Alcoholics Anonymous she had committed to this;
The fourteen-year-old girl we helped on the second week of Street Angels - through work with her school and the shock of not remembering much of the night, we saw her commit to turning her life around rather than basing her life around getting drunk every weekend;
The homeless man who came to the café in September 2009 (he had mental health problems and had not paid his rent for several months) – six weeks later and after much work, we found him a flat and on-going support. A year later he is settled and his life is back on track;
The volunteer who came to Street Angels with mental health issues and lived in supported housing. Through much support by the fantastic team of volunteers he has moved into his own flat, has reduced his medication, his mental health has stabilised and he has become one of our most regular volunteers - the doctors, care workers and psychiatric nurse all put this down to his volunteering as a Street Angel.
How do people get involved?
PAUL: The website - www.streetangels.org.uk - has all the information to be involved in Halifax and a list of web sites for projects across the UK.
Why do you do it?
PAUL: I do it because Street Angels makes a difference and works. Halifax is a better place for our work and it works in towns and cities across the UK. This helps to show that people who care about others and the community they live can make a difference!
ADAM: It’s after 2.00am, freezing cold, and Bedford Street Angels are still out. Why do we do it?! It’s because we care and we want to make a difference. The Board of Trustees, committee members and all volunteers of the Street Angels are Christians who believe that our faith involves serving our community. Partnering with God in prayer and action adds a dimension that sees communities and people transformed. God is far too big to be kept in a church building – as Christians we have chosen to live a life that seeks to make a difference – for the better. That difference needs to be made in the places where people are.
The Lord’s Prayer says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” – every time that prayer is said we are asking God to bring his kingdom of love, peace, hope and life – in fact everything that is good – to our communities. How does God do that? Through us, people committed to making a difference!
By Rebecca Jennings