This article originally appeared on VICE UK
While binge drinking ourselves into oblivion as a national sport might be on the decline in the UK, things are still far from calm for Manchester's emergency service workers. The people of Manchester love a drink, and that puts additional strain on the city's emergency services. Dr. Cliff Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, has called for more arrests, claiming "If more people knew that if they got drunk they were going to be arrested, they wouldn't drink in the first place." Realistically, it'll probably take more than the threat of arrest to stop people from slamming backSambuca shots and puking on their shoes, but there is a need for something to help alleviate the extra pressure put on emergency service workers.
That's where the Manchester Street Angels come in. The Angels are a group of trained volunteers who spend their Friday nights looking after people who have drunk themselves into a vulnerable state. They currently patrol the Deansgate area of the city center, a popular drinking destination on a weekend and home to the largest public house in the UK, The Moon Under Water, somewhat over-optimistically named after George Orwell's ideal pub . And it seems a sober set of eyes patrolling the streets is much needed. Over the last few years there's been a disproportionately large number of deaths in and around the waterways of Manchester—61 bodies in just six years. The volume of incidents even led one academic to suggest it's no coincidence, claiming there may be a serial killer patrolling the canals called "The Pusher." This notion was dismissed by Greater Manchester Police.
The Angels started out three years ago in response to these incidents, as a support group on Facebook for the friends and families of the victims. "Because of all the deaths in the papers we felt that something needed to be done," the group's Chair, Rachel Goddard, told me. After the tragic death of 17-year-old Adam Pickup over Christmas 2013 the push to set up an on-the-street volunteer organization picked up momentum. The project officially launched in November 2014, after receiving financial backing from Greater Manchester Police and Adam's parents.
I met up with them at their office, before heading out to experience the sober-end of a Friday night in Manchester. It's still fairly early as we arrive at Deansgate Locks, epicenter of a particular strand of drunken Manchester nightlife. The Locks are located in the converted railway arches underneath Deansgate Station, and are home to numerous trendy bars and clubs – the kind of place where you can enjoy a night of auto-tuned pop music surrounded by men who might punch you in the face at any second, which is why there's a large police presence outside. At this point the atmosphere is pretty relaxed though. Young lads in expensive rental cars are cruising up and down the street, blasting out Drake in the hopes of impressing passing women with their YOLO lifestyles.
As we leave the Locks to patrol back up Deansgate I ask Michelle, one of the new recruits, what made her give up her Friday night to do this. "Because I've got a daughter who's nearly old enough to start going out, and it's reassuring to know that there are people on the streets who would look after her if she needed it," she tells me. "Yeah, same for me," adds Kim, another new volunteer.
The Street Angels are part of the
Christian Nightlife Initiatives, a network of similar projects that operate in towns and cities throughout the UK. But they're not a religious group, as Rachel tells me, "I'm not a Christian—I'm not against religion, but that's just not me. When we signed the agreement with the CNI Network we stated it wasn't going to be 'let's hold hands and pray before we go out,' it's more of a case that if you care and are willing to be trained then you can come out and make a difference." Outside House of Fraser we pass a busker playing Wonderwall, with a keen member of the public in a green parka on vocals. This extremely Manchester scene is cut short when he sees us and starts to play Yellow, in honor of our hi-vis jackets. Further on we encounter a guy who mistakes the Angels for a gang of rogue bouncers before realizing who they are and enthusiastically telling us how much he respects the work the group does and handing out a round of high-fives, before casually returning his hand to its previous position down the front of his pants. Up the road some lads in a car spot the yellow jackets and all immediately put their seat belts on. The group works as a visible deterrent while on patrol, both for minor infringements and potentially much worse offenses. "The police have told us they can tell we're out there, because if you're having a [quiet] night, it's because you're deterring people, they see the yellow jackets and they mistake you for the police," Rachel told me earlier. You're not allowed to say the word "quiet" on shift though, it's considered the Street Angel equivalent of "Macbeth" to superstitious actors—a perfect way to jinx the situation and ensure something bad kicks off.
Just as I start to think things are pretty quiet, Rachel receives a radio call from a Taxi Marshall saying there's an intoxicated girl who needs assistance at Deansgate Locks. We head down there and the Angels take her to a nearby bench to assess the situation. She's incoherent and can't remember the code for her phone. They wrap her in a space blanket to keep her warm, but as they can't contact anyone to get her home safely and suspect there may be drugs involved they ring for an ambulance, waiting with her for over an hour until it arrives.
It makes you wonder what might have happened if the Angels weren't there to help. It's clear the emergency services are stretched to their limit, and don't have the time or resources to focus on people who've become vulnerable through drink. Out on the streets everyone told us how necessary they think the work the volunteers do is. One man I spoke to while waiting for the ambulance told me, "I've got a lot of respect for what they do because I've been in that state before," which is probably true for most people.
The CNI Network and broader Street Angels movement won David Cameron's Big Society Award in 2012. Rachel doesn't seem particularly sold on the Big Society or its awards, saying that's not why they're doing it: "We're not here for awards or recognition, we know we've made a difference since November," adding, "I'm just doing my bit for the community." But whether they like it or not they are a part of Cameron's Big Society, helping to cushion the impact of cuts to the emergency services by assisting them on a Friday night. Data from Public Health England regarding alcohol-related deaths show a growing national disparity, with the most deprived areas suffering the highest rates. Another survey by the campaign group Drink Wise found that Manchester was the binge drinking capital of the North West. I asked Rachel whether she thought there was a problem with excessive drinking in the city. "I wouldn't say there's a booze problem, just that people in Manchester are mad for it and want to enjoy their nights out," she said. And so long as they do, they should be grateful for the Street Angles. Follow Chris on Twitter.