An evening with Glasgow’s Street Pastors

15 May 2019

Photograph: Craig Quirie

The volunteers who keep you safe on a night out

Describing the Street Pastors’ movements as a patrol may be a bit too regimental in description; it is more a sociable stroll, but with the added intent of spotting those in need and any discarded glass bottles – of which the Street Pastors have a seemingly unnatural power in locating.  

One Street Pastor likened their work to that of a mountain rescue team. Such a service won’t sit and debate whether or not the person is stranded as a result of their own actions, instead they will simply do everything possible to help that individual as quickly as possible.

There is no judgement with Street Pastors. One man displays his paper coffee cup filled with a decent amount of coppers, topped up with a sprinkling of gold coins. He is given a woolly hat after complaining that his current one is too thin. He is asked what his plans are for the rest of the night.  To go away up the road to sit and watch the TV, is his reply. This would likely anger many, but the Street Pastors are understanding in why he needs to beg – saying being housed or having space in a hostel also comes with costs.

That is not to say all beggars aren’t homeless. One man lays in a shop doorway and watches as another man found sprawled out drunk on the pavement is helped to his train.  As the Street Pastors make their way back from the station, the homeless man is concerned that the other man is okay and wonders if he managed to make his train. He is offered some clothing and an extra blanket, but he refuses saying that he has a good sleeping bag and it’d be better off being given to someone else – he takes a bar of chocolate however, saying you can never say no to chocolate.  Throughout the night Pastors pass by and chat with him..

The homeless man’s concern for others in his own dispiriting situation is humbling, and ever so distressing. In giving up their Friday and Saturday nights, it is clear that the Street Pastors haven’t themselves at the forefront of their minds; but you have to wonder what effect is has on them, when seeing people in dismal circumstances and the continuous cold rush causing question of “What if we never walked down that street?” that will run through a pastor whenever they find someone in need.

Stuart Crawford, coordinator of the Glasgow Street Pastors, said: “It’s very distressing what we see. In recent times what we’re seeing an increase in is drug related problems – basically because of street Valium. One of our team just two weeks had to be engaged in CPR with somebody who had overdosed – so that’s really distressing.”

He continued: “What is also very distressing is the increase in mental health issues we’re dealing with – and when you pair that with drug use it really is a problematic, and for me personally what really upsets me is the homelessness issue.”

Some of the homelessness on show in Glasgow City Centre. Photograph: Craig Querie

Crawford is one of the members who helps organise the Street Pastors operation. He likens it to the running of a small business.  Each of the 120 volunteers will work one Friday and Saturday of each of month, meaning there is usually 8-12 walking the streets on each of these nights.

“We have now been doing this in Glasgow city centre for ten years. The uniform is instantly recognisable as part of the nightlife of the city centre – people no longer ask what we do as they know what we do, the bigger question is why do we do what we do. People just don’t get it, but I think the word ‘pastor’ really helps some, because whether people are church based or not, they have a rough idea of what that word means and that it’s about caring and looking after people – so that in itself draws things out of people.

“We never ever do anything if we do not have that person’s permission; we’re never taking control of people even if they’re in a bad state. What I find is I often get messages the next day either through Facebook or the Street Pastor email from people showing their appreciation and saying things like ‘I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if your team hadn’t been there’ we get a lot of appreciation, and people do respect what we’re trying to do for them.”

The Street Pastors provide help off the streets too. Inside St George’s Tron Church on Buchanan Street is the team’s safe zone – where those in need can be given medical attention, someone to speak to or time to sober up.  A man from Greenock unable to get home is given a bed in the Church that will do him until cheaper modes of transport become available in the morning, whilst a teenage girl is given a seat, some tea and someone to talk to.

St George’s Tron, in which the safe zone is located. Photograph: Craig Quirie

Gary Bainbridge is the on-duty team leader and is located in the safe zone for the entirety of the night alongside four other first aid trained colleagues, and Andrea who, alongside her Labrador, said prayers for those found in need on the streets. There is no security entrance to the Church – the automatic doors are open to all. This would leave some feeling uneasy given you wouldn’t normally leave your front door unlocked at 2am on a Friday.

Bainbridge sees it differently: “It’s very safe for us, as most people realise they’re in a Church and regardless of whether they’re sober or had a few drinks are quite respectful of the fact they’re in a church. I’ve been doing this for two and half years and we haven’t had any issues.”

He continued: “Everybody is welcome in the safe zone. The only limitations are making sure that we can keep an eye on and help everyone. There’s usually six of us, but the first aid guys will jump in and also help those that don’t necessarily need first aid and those who aren’t first aid trained will do their best to assist those that are.”

At 00:30, the team I had walked with for the first half of the night are due their break. They return to the Church, take seats in the downstairs area and share some of the treats they brought with them. Although the break is undoubtedly deserved, all focus is still on the job at hand. Numbers of bottles collected and people spoken to are discussed, whilst predictions on how the onslaught of revellers leaving clubs will go are debated. But most importantly: packs of flip flops are put in backpacks at the ready to give out.

Infographic showing the Street Pastor’s weekend statistics. Photograph: Craig Quirie

Although it seems almost jocular to give out flip flops, it serves an important purpose in ensuring first and foremost people don’t get hurt, but also that A&E queues don’t lengthen and ambulances don’t need called for bare feet being cut on broken glass. Around 3000 of the pink flip flops are given out each year in Glasgow city centre.

“For some of the young ladies who are in bare feet after being in heels all night, the response that we often get to giving them flip flops is ‘you guys are amazing’ or ‘this is incredible’ – I’ve had proposals of marriage and other things that I could not repeat, whilst giving out flip flops,” said Crawford, continuing:

“Sometimes it’s just a 30 second conversation when giving out the flip flops, other times they’ll stop and have a chat with you.”

The famous flip flops in a Street Pastor’s bag. Photograph: Craig Quirie

Limping over the cold pavements of Glasgow soon turns to excited leaps into the air when a Pastor is seen. I could count the number of bare-footed women who were offered a pair of flip flops – as opposed to the droves who excitedly rushed to ask for a pair – on one hand.  Flip flops weren’t the only thing the Street Pastors were approached for. One young man said: “Thank God I saw you guys,” as the Pastors tended to his badly cut hand. He told how he was reluctantly going to wander into a takeaway shop and ask staff if they had any napkins to stem the flow of blood, but then had the wound cleaned and patched up by the Street Pastor he spotted. Just before this, a young woman was found sobbing on the street with a badly cut knee surrounded by her friends who didn’t know what to do.

Whilst she was calmed down and given medical attention, I was able to speak with Craig Bathgate, at 25 years old he was the youngest Street Pastor on duty that night. During our chat, he mentions that he is continuously looking around as he is keeping an eye out on a young man vomiting, a woman struggling in an alleyway, and another who is in tears further up the street – all of whom he has to point out to my untrained eye, but he has them spotted and locked onto instantly. He is happy to keep watch from a distance as their friends appear sober and in control of the situation, but he is ready to step in if needed.

“Deep down we all respect each other,” he said, continuing: “even if this wasn’t a religious organisation, I’d still be involved. We’re not here to tell people about Jesus, first and foremost our role is to help people, love them, listen to them and care for them – everyone wants to do that at their core, and it’s great that we have this opportunity to do that through this organisation.”

Bathgate began as a Street Pastor in Stirling. He’d spend his days in lectures at the city’s university, before being met with wild excitement and confusion when classmates would spot him keeping an eye on queues going into nightclubs, rather than being in them.

“Stirling set me up nicely [for being a Street Pastor in Glasgow] – it’s a smaller city, but with the same problems, just on a smaller scale. It was nice to get involved there and learn in that environment then come to Glasgow,” he said.  

The Street Pastor, who is a nurse by day, finishes patching up the woman’s wound and her friends repeatedly thank her for doing so, before running back to give a second hug of appreciation. By this point, it is past 3am and Sauchiehall Street is beginning to fill with drunken revellers. This is arguably the most crucial time for finding those in need.   

“There’s a massive amount of luck to that,” said Bathgate. “We’ll decide to go down a street by chance, and find someone passed out – we’re then able to help that person. I remember one night the leader of the group decided to go up a quiet street, and there was a guy passed out that we otherwise wouldn’t have come across. We can’t help everyone, but we’ll help anyone that we can.”

As we turn round a corner a young woman is passed out on a quiet downward sloping pavement.  She is in a helpless, dangerous state. The Street Pastors take over from those trying to wake her – who, it is later discovered, are not her friends – and begin making moves to recover her. Although the shift is over, the Street Pastors won’t leave the woman. The strangers appear to have good intentions and don’t appear unsavoury, but won’t budge – although they are not asked to leave, it is testing of the Street Pastors as the situation is already worrying enough.  

Eventually, a friend of the woman is called and she accompanies her worse for wear pal into a taxi promising to ensure she gets home as the Street Pastors bid farewell. They return to the Church, have a debrief, collect their belongings and head home, ready for bed at 5am.

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