Ones for the road

It takes patience, gallows humour and some serious training to look after partygoers on our cities’ streets. We head out with Manchester Street Angels

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On 28 December 2013, Adam Pickup went missing after a post-Christmas night out with his mates in Manchester city centre. He was a normal 17 year old. His favourite song was Everlasting Love by the Black Keys. He was on the brink of applying for an art foundation course. His friends, and the country, mobilised on social media in a frantic attempt to find him. Two days later however, his body was discovered underneath a railway bridge yards from where he was last seen.

It was the aftermath of his tragic passing that acted as the spark for the establishment of the Manchester Street Angels last year – a band of trained volunteers in hi-vis jackets who patrol the Deansgate area of the city centre – teeming with popular bars and nightclubs – looking after those who’ve had one too many.

“There was a big public outcry and a feeling that this was a needless tragedy,” says group chair Rachel Goddard about its formation. “Everybody wanted to get together and do something for vulnerable young people.”

The project officially launched last November after receiving financial backing from Greater Manchester Police and Pickup’s parents. “For them, it’s something positive in his memory and legacy,” says Goddard. “It’s helping people on the streets so something like this never happens to someone else’s family.”

“It’s reassuring to know there’s people on the streets helping kids like mine get home.”

It’s 9.30pm on a Friday night when Big Issue North joins the Street Angels at their base, and the centre is already awash with office Crimbo parties. “You can never predict what kind of night it will be,” say Goddard and her recruits, whose ages range from 18 to 72. “Sometimes it looks really busy but it’ll be eerie. We don’t use the ‘Q’ word [quiet] – it’s considered a jinx.”

The Angels are part of Christian Nightlife Initiatives – a network of similar schemes throughout cities in the UK. Having launched in Halifax in 2005 to coincide with the change in licensing laws, there are now over 130 projects working on the streets, inside club venues, music festivals and, bafflingly, even in lap-dancing bars. At 10pm, they attend a briefing by Greater Manchester Police, where an officer delivers a Powerpoint presentation of events happening that evening and persons of interest to look out for – including three brothers on the loose with a 9mm handgun and a cluster of men driving along Deansgate, drugging and raping young girls. Goddard points out that the Angels have received first aid, suicide intervention, first responder and child sexual exploitation training, and are expected to be “eyes and ears”. “We fill the areas where they’re lacking support,” she adds.

At 10.30pm, the two teams (one trailing five minutes behind so they don’t miss anything) head out on their beat. There’s a camaraderie between members. They have a weekly competition between the two groups called Peculiar Friday, to see who can spot the oddest sight. Along Deansgate Locks – a flashy strip of neon-lit bars – queues snake around the block for entry as Goddard, assisted by fellow Angels Luigi, Mary and Michelle, collect bottles off the street that could be employed later as weapons. They’ll dispose of around 50-100 per night. As they head around the corner, it doesn’t take long to notice their first “customer”.

Slumped on a step is an 18 year old, volcanic-vomiting on to the street. They give him water and help him call his mum to pick him up, then wait with him until she arrives. “How much have you had to drink?” asks Michelle, good-naturedly. “I don’t drink, love!” he protests in mock-outrage, grinning. “The pavement,” she retorts with a laugh, “would disagree with you.” Is his mum angry? “She’s used to it,” he shrugs.

Michelle enrolled because she has a daughter approaching 17 years old. “It’s reassuring to know there’s people on the streets helping kids like mine get home if they can’t by themselves. It’s a thankless task in that people often don’t remember it the night before.” She notes that, conversely, the city’s taxi marshals take selfies using the phones of those they assist, so they’ll have a souvenir of shame.

Barely two minutes after dealing with the 18 year old, a rough sleeper requires their skills. Blood trickling down his face from a small cut, and illuminated by the light of the Tesco doorway he’s crouched by, he claims he’s been assaulted. At first, the team seem sceptical – he says he’s been attacked every week. But they stay with him, listening to his problems, cleaning his wound, and comforting him. After 15 minutes, he admits he picked at a scab and just wanted company, as they help him to his feet and on his way to his hostel. “Sorry,” he keeps repeating. “That’s okay,” says Goddard, rarely anything less than buoyant. “It gives us something to do.”


Suddenly there’s the sound of a crash, as a taxi driver opens his door on to the face of a 20-something cyclist, leaving a cut. They escort him to the pavement, checking his pulse, assessing the damage (mainly shock and a graze), and remaining there until his girlfriend comes to pick him up.

Last year, Inspector Ian Hanson caused uproar by telling the Manchester Evening News that he personally wouldn’t go into the city centre – the fastest-growing night-time economy outside London – after midnight because “it is too dangerous a place and I do not believe that we can guarantee individuals’ safety”. It’s clear, with finite police resources, revellers welcome the visible presence of the Angels: they high-five them, buskers serenade them. “One guy dropped to his knees and said ‘you’ve been sent from above to help me,’” laughs Goddard.

As a group of youths from East London ask Mary to help them talk to the taxi company they’re phoning (“I can’t understand what he’s saying. He’s talking Manchester language, bruv”), Luigi observes a teenager, Alvin, rolling around on the floor singing Laid by James. It’s midnight. He’s a 19-year-old first year student at uni who’s lost his friends after being kicked out of a popular pound-a-shot indie club. His nose is scuffed, blood is speckled on his face. Arm in arm, Goddard and Luigi help him up, supporting his weight – his legs are liquid – moving him around the corner so he doesn’t get trampled in the footfall. They ring him a taxi, urging him to take little sips of water. He’s so intoxicated, he can’t hold the bottle himself as he suckles. Michelle looks like a farmer feeding a baby lamb, he’s sweating profusely. “What have you taken tonight? Just drink?” asks Goddard as Luigi tries to get his phone password out of him so he can scroll through his recent contacts and find someone to help.

His tongue lolled out, he can only communicate with thumbs up or down, like a human emoji. As no cab company will take him if he appears too wasted, “we need to practice walking”, rallies Michelle. They try – he collapses like Jenga. “We’ve got five minutes to make this look believable, guys,” says Goddard, with gallows humour.

After 10 minutes, he projectiles Jäger-scented vomit, as Luigi holds his head. One passer-by crouches down and attempts to take a selfie with him. “Will you look after me?” pleads Alvin. Bystanders heckle: “STOOOODDENT.” One girl implores people to “kick him”. Five rugger-buggers chant: “You’re drunk. We’re going to rape you.” As they’re tending to his wound, they notice a cartoonish bump on his bonce. He starts howling in primal pain – he’s cold – as they wrap him in a foil blanket. It’s suddenly dissolved from comedy to concerning. After an hour and a half of waiting with him, diligently trying to ascertain his pattern lock and who he’s been out with – all the time stonewalled by incoherence – they finally manage to get hold of his friend Henry to tell him an ambulance has been called.

“Mate, I’m so sorry,” he slurs to Henry as he wraps his hoodie over him. “Want me to sing you a lullaby as well?” laughs the beleaguered mate, who’s been roused out of bed for this. Everybody fights to keep him awake until the paramedics arrive.

He can only communicate with thumbs up or down, like a human emoji.

“I sometimes think, ‘I’m 19 years old. That should be me,’” says Luigi, surveying the revellers stumbling around. He was Pickup’s best friend; his band No Hot Ashes even used some of his artwork on one of their releases, in tribute. “Obviously this is the area where he went missing,” he says. “If there was someone going round that night, there would have been a better chance of him not passing away. There’s been so many people in similar situations – who’ve been hurt, raped, passed away – that having people on the ground looking out for them is worth its weight in gold.”

It’s gone 2am as the paramedics whisk Alvin away. You wonder what would have happened to him without the Street Angels. “Anything and everything,” says Goddard. “It could be anything from petty comments from strangers to homeless people being set on fire and kicked – which we’ve heard of. Vulnerable people are the victims of theft, abuse, violence. They could be victims of hypothermia.”

Every Christmas, as Black Friday approaches – the last Friday before Christmas, when office parties go nuts – the media open a fresh bottle of Château Du Piety (with a chaser of sanctimoniousness) to toast ideas such as drunk tanks to combat binge-drinking. Goddard however sees such punitive measures as counter-productive. The Angels are refreshingly non-judgemental, and build rapport with those they help, regardless of their state. “Everybody’s been young. Everybody’s been drunk or had too many. And if you haven’t, you’ve never lived. Funds should be used for services that are out there and making a difference. Slapping a fine on someone isn’t going to change anything.”

The Street Angels movement as a whole won David Cameron’s Big Society Award in 2012, and such schemes – including the Street Pastors – have been credited with a reduction in alcohol-related violence and A&E admissions. “Adam [Pickup] got separated from his friends. It happens. People’s lives are in their phones. If your battery dies, you’re on your own. Having a friendly face in a yellow jacket helps.”

As they’re preparing to head back to base at 2am, Goddard makes a beeline towards a six foot five man dressed as Snow White and grabs a selfie. “I think we’ve won Peculiar Friday!” she beams.

Photos by Phil Tragen

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