A Street Pastor's personal story

It is 1am on a Friday night in Sutton, a south London suburb, where 4,000 people will queue to get into – then stumble out of – bars and night clubs over the next few hours. Most are young, drunk and potentially vulnerable.
Rosie has missed her last train home and wants to know where to get a night bus. Elspeth is dealing with a paralytic friend who cannot stand up. Claire is in tears because her friends used fake ID to get into a club and left her outside. There is not a policeman in sight, but help of a holier kind is at hand.
I am on patrol with eight “street pastors”: people so concerned about the numbers of young people out drinking that they head to high streets every Friday night to deal with the fallout. They are part of an inter-denominational Christian group of adults moving out of their middle-class, middle-aged comfort zones to make the streets feel safer while they are on patrol – and they boast some high-profile fans.
It’s absolutely fantastic the job the street pastors are doing,” David Cameron enthused earlier this year. “What we need is more people out in the community supporting the police, who can’t do the job of beating antisocial behaviour on their own.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson is also an admirer of the “extraordinary and inspiring movement” of street pastors, which he sees as a key part of reducing violence on the streets. “I talked to a few of the kids loitering around at 11.30pm, but two stick in my mind,” he wrote, after joining a team in Southgate, north London, during his mayoral campaign.
“One was a 15-year-old who bragged (convincingly) about the hundreds of offences he had committed, the drugs he had taken, and the relative failure of the police to deal with him. I could see all too easily how he would end up in prison, at massive expense to the state.
“Then there was another kid, in the same gang, who said he was doing an NVQ to be an electrician. He said he could not wait to earn so much that he would be able to show off to a certain policeman who had persecuted him. For him, I saw more than a glimmer of hope, and I saw how the street pastors were helping him.”
The experiment began in Brixton in 2003, based on a Jamaican model, with trials taking off in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Five years on, the street pastor project has spread to small towns and suburbs, where the civilian patrols deal less with gang culture and more with drunkenness and antisocial behaviour. This year, the number of areas patrolled has grown to 70, with 50 more groups planned by the end of this year.
Their help could not come at a more opportune time. As the Government prepares to unveil its Youth Alcohol Action Plan to improve education in schools and for parents, the alcohol consumption of a typical teenage drinker has more than doubled. In 1995, it was 5.3 units per week, but last year it was 11.4 units. More teenagers are drinking spirits than before: 63 per cent of 15-year-olds named spirits as a regular drink.
Frank Soodeen, of the pressure group Alcohol Concern, has nothing but praise for the street pastors. “The work they do certainly helps – getting people out of clubs, onto buses and into taxis is really important when they are drunk and putting themselves at risk,” he says. “The real problem is when bars and clubs are illegally selling alcohol to people who are too drunk to consume it sensibly.”
Many of the street pastors recognise this change in drinking behaviour and the atmosphere on town high streets in recent years. Nick Boddy, a church worker in his fifties and a street pastor of three years standing, says Sutton now seems busier with drinkers on a Friday night than it is with shoppers on a Saturday afternoon.
“We find little ways of making people’s evening better – even if it’s just having a chat. When there is a fracas, we don’t intervene, but we stand back and pray or call the police if it is really serious. Then we help calm the fears of the people around us who are frightened by the fight.”
I join Mark Tomlinson, the 49-year-old group co-ordinator, and his patrol partner Cathy Ayres. The group are the ultimate advocates for Cameron’s much-mocked hug-a-hoodie philosophy. Except to my surprise, it is the hoodies who are hugging the God Squad. “We love you street pastors,” passing groups shout, taking pictures with their mobile phones.
One grammar school girl, who was helped by a street pastor the previous week, says she had just joined a Facebook group in appreciation of their work.
The first person to benefit tonight is a woman in her early twenties who limps barefoot out of Vodka Revolution Bar, clutching sky-scraper heels. She tiptoes around broken bottles towards a taxi rank. Cathy, a primary school teacher in her fifties, fishes some flip-flops out of a bag to offer the shoeless clubber some protection.
Free flip-flops are the latest addition to the street pastors’ arsenal of goodwill. “We give them to young girls whose feet are hurting,” says Mark. “We try to chat to people to reduce their fear of crime here in the suburbs, where people’s worries can be as bad as people living in the inner city.”
Thermal blankets for those who did not bring coats have proved popular, he says. Pocket night-bus timetables are invaluable for helping disorientated youngsters get home. In the most serious cases, the pastors will bring a sleeping bag from their base at a nearby church for those with no other shelter.
Clutching a bottle of lager, Alex pulls his bike alongside Mark. He has known Mark for years and obviously admires him. “These are good, good people,” he says. “Who else do you know who will walk the streets on a Friday night talking to drunks? I’ve been in a bit of trouble and tried to turn my life around, but I haven’t done it just yet. But Mark I can talk to anything about. He’s such a good guy.”
Others share his surprise that people with comfortable lives sacrifice Friday night social plans to help the inebriated. But the street pastors have various reasons for their commitment to the scheme: some are inspired by the idea of ordinary people making towns safer, some worry about their own children out late at night and want to provide a safer environment for others.
Melissa Wynn, who works for an IT company, says: “We all want to get out of the cosy environment of our churches and homes to where we can make a difference.”
Peter Ticher, aged 80, is one of the group’s newest recruits. “I’m not scared of going out on the streets,” he says. “We hear so much about knife crime, but not one street pastor has ever been injured.”
As the clubs start throwing people out, we spot Tony – speechlessly drunk and clinging to a lamppost. A street pastor calls the group’s hotline to the police. “You wouldn’t believe how many ones we’ve had like this tonight,” says a frustrated paramedic, when help finally arrives. “Only one legitimate job tonight, a baby that couldn’t breathe. The rest of them have been self-inflicted by over-indulging in alcohol.”
Tony spits at the paramedics when they approach, so police are called to put him into the ambulance, in order that he can be driven home. “It’s an absolute waste of our time,” says the paramedic. “They certainly don’t tell you this in training. Tony’s had too much sauce and now he can’t walk. We can’t leave him lying here and no taxi will have him, so we’ve got to take him home.”
At first, the police and ambulance services were sceptical about the street pastors scheme, says Nick. “They were worried we would cause more work for them, if people targeted us or we got into trouble. But the shopkeepers, clubbers and bar owners are glad we’re out there to give advice,” he adds.
“Eventually, the police conceded we are helpful to them, because they can be freed up to deal with the more serious issues.”
Sgt Andy Barnes, who helped to brief the first Sutton street pastors, appears in a promotional video calling for more recruits. He praises the team.
“It takes a lot away for us really,” he says. “They are there talking to people, engaging with people. These are people who are often left by themselves, who are drunk, who are lonely – and who would take up an awful lot of our time.”

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