Boris Johnson, the new London Mayor, has praised the groups of volunteer Christian ‘street pastors’ who now offer support to late night revellers in 70 areas of the country. Mr Johnson spoke of the ‘extraordinary and inspiring movement’ which he sees playing an important role in reducing street crime. Previously, Conservative Party leader David Cameron lauded the ‘absolutely fantastic job the street pastors are doing’ in complementing the work of police in tackling antisocial behaviour. Backing has also come from police, who are freed up to concentrate on more serious incidents.
Begun in Brixton in 2003, the movement has spread rapidly to other cities, towns and suburbs. Teams take to the streets on Friday and Saturday nights to help worse-for-wear and vulnerable club-goers. Their services range from having a chat to giving flip flops to revellers stumbling in their high heels and issuing night-bus timetables to help people get home.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Source: Sunday Telegraph (1/6)