If you go out in York on a Friday or Saturday night, amongst the many feather-boa clad hen parties and ‘lads on tour’ stags, you might see some Street Angels.
Clad in fluorescent jackets that bear a striking similarity to those worn by Royal Mail employees, these figures disperse water, flip flops and practical help to the city’s needy, and are rarely remembered the next day by those they help.
I first discovered Street Angels through a friend, who, twice a month, dons her oversized reflective jacket and heads out to spend four hours from 10pm to 2am caring for the somewhat worse for wear in York’s city centre. Unfortunately for her, it’s usually raining too.
Launched in York in October last year, the Street Angels organisation is a faith-based one that brings together volunteers from churches across the city to provide practical help in the small hours to some of the most vulnerable people.
York is now one of many towns and cities throughout the UK the boasts a Street Angels group.
What do they actually do? Well, for those four hours (often longer, depending on how busy the night is), the Street Angels divide the city in half and two teams of three to five volunteers walk the streets, looking out for those in need. Their official mission statement is “to help make York city centre a safer and better place, practically helping, caring and listening to people, especially those in vulnerable or difficult situations.” This can take many forms, from giving flip flops to a girl whose heels have broken, finding overnight accommodation for a person sleeping on the street, or staying with someone until they’re sober enough to safely get a taxi home.
Although not trained in First Aid, all Street Angels volunteers undergo a rigorous three day training programme that includes courses on drug awareness, licensing regulations and conflict management. North Yorkshire Police and SIA (the governing body that regulates the training of bouncers) are both involved in the training process.
It was Jennifer Locke, a York resident working for the Christian mission organisation Youth With A Mission (YWAM) who first conceived of the idea of Street Angels for the city. Inspired by the work done in Halifax, where the project first sprung up, she saw Street Angels as a way to expand the work already being done by volunteers in York: “Previously some church and YWAM volunteers had been regularly serving hot drinks on Friday nights on Parliament street,” she said, “and I could see that there were a lot of vulnerable people who would benefit from an initiative like Street Angels.”
So far, a Christian group wanting to do some good. But who are the people who go out and give up their time for the drunk and the homeless?
Well, anybody. Street Angels York currently has 55 volunteers and is still recruiting. It counts amongst its numbers the retired, those with families, and even some students.
I spoke to Kirsty, a third year English student who has been involved with Street Angels since December 2009.
“A friend of mine helped to get the project up and running,” she explains, “and originally I sent off my application form because it sounded like a good project, but mainly because I wanted to support her. The more I’ve been involved, doing the training weekends and going on nights out, the more I’ve realised what a great project it is, and how it has a positive impact in York on a night time,” she added.
“I’m no perfect angel; I go out on socials, I drink, I love going out,” Kirsty explains.
“I have done for the last two and a half years, and I’m very much looking forward to going out more once all my final essays are handed in.”
I also spoke to Nick, another third year involved with Street Angels. Both students found it difficult to know how to explain their participation in a project that seems at odds with the stereotypical student lifestyle. They also struggled to explain their actions in relation to their Christian faith, a motivating factor in their lives but one that often carries its own stereotypes.
“People do think it’s an unusual thing to chose to do whilst you’re at university; surely you’d rather be out drinking than picking up drunk people,” comments Kirsty. “Often you’re met with a sort of bemused silence when you tell people about the project, they go ‘oh, that’s nice,’ and then they look away, not really knowing what to say.”
The difficulty seems to come with how they are perceived by both the general public, and by their student peers, for whom the Christian stereotype is still strong: “I think the issue is that if you’re doing something like Street Angels, people often get a little defensive towards you because it can look a bit like you’re positing yourself as morally superior to those who have gone on a night out; that you’re better than them and do a civic duty or something,” comments Kirsty.
“I think especially because Street Angels is a church-based organisation, people think “oh, Christians, they’re judging us for our sins,” or something like that, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”