“Streetlights. Who are you then?”
“Are you that Christian lot that helps drunk people?”
“Hey, Streetlights, you helped my mate get home last week!”
Essentially, we are a group of volunteers who go out on a Friday and Saturday night in Durham, and try to make sure people have a good and safe night out. A typical night starts with me kitting up in as many layers as possible, donning my Streetlights coat and, if it is really cold, my Streetlights hat too! I meet my fellow volunteers at the Salvation Army building and we head out onto the streets at about 10pm. Streetlights aims to send its volunteers out in groups of three, of mixed ages and genders – there have previously been volunteers up to 70 years old! It helps to have such mixed groups, to enable interactions with a wide range of people. A young woman on her own, for example, is unlikely to talk openly to a man in a uniform, whereas being approached by an older woman wearing pink gloves (as one volunteer likes to) is much less threatening.
We go out carrying a rucksack containing a first aid kit, water bottles, flip flops, emergency blankets and more. In the first couple of hours, we walk around the city, visiting the area under Elvet Bridge where Klute, Boathouse and Whisky River are, North Road, and the Millennium development with the Slug and Lettuce, Loveshack etc. We chat to the door staff to get a feel for how the night is going; the last night I was on duty was the start of the month, which means payday and a busy weekend.
As we walk around the town we glance up alleyways and side-streets to check that nothing suspicious is occurring. We have training in situation management and conflict resolution, and even basic self-defence, although we hope we never need it. During the night, we also pick up any glass bottles left lying around and bin them, to prevent them from being used as weapons if a fight breaks out.
The most common issue is finding a drunk woman who has lost her friends and does not know how to get home. In some cases, solving this is as simple as ringing her friends to let them know where she is and sitting with her until they turn up. On other ocassions, we get her to a taxi if her friends won’t respond or have already left. These girls are often very drunk and emotional, and we try to be a caring presence for them and a listening ear if they want to talk.
Sometimes something more dramatic happens, for example last month I was walking along the North Road bridge with my fellow volunteers when we spotted a dozen young men down in the yard behind the fancy dress shop. They were yelling at each other and obviously spoiling for a fight, so we tipped off the police in case anything should happen. As we watched, one of the guys ran full-pelt and headbutted another, and in seconds he was on the floor and the fight was kicking off. Suddenly, a police van drove into their midst, sirens blaring. and four policemen in armoured vests jumped out and chased them down the street.
Occasionally, something utterly ridiculous happens, like the time three guys walked up the stairs from Loveshack, totally starkers except for their shoes!
Being a Christian organisation, we also often end up having conversations about our faith with people. Just to be clear, we do not evangelise at all while we are out, we do not even bring up the topic unless someone asks. We often get asked about issues within the Church at the moment, for example the Christian attitude towards gay people, and it is good to have a chance to re-address the balance that groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have skewed. It so often happens that a small minority who shout loudly can tarnish the image of everyone else, and Streetlights is one way of showing that most Christians care about people rather than their labels.
Of course, being a Streetlights volunteer is not very glamorous, and can involve coping with vomit, blood and urine – we all carry disposable gloves! But it is worth it for the people you meet. Meeting people like the young single mum who works two jobs to support her 8-year-old makes me realise how privileged I am to be a student at Durham. I know it sounds like a massive cliché, but volunteering with streetlights can be a strangely humbling experience, and at the same time immensely heart-warming.
If you want to find out more about Streetlights, our website address is: www.durhamstreetlights.org.uk and if you see us around on a night out, come and say hello!