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Meet the ‘Angels’ Keeping London’s Gay Nightlife Scene Safe

Run by the LGBT Foundation and Westminster City Council, Soho Angels volunteers help people to party and get home safely.

by Finbarr Toesland; photos by Wunmi Onibudo
24 September 2019, 8:00am

It’s just before 10PM on a Friday night in Soho, central London. Locals and tourists are heading towards the bars and nightclubs that line Greek Street, Wardour Street and Dean Street, hoping to make the most of the last few days of summer. Drinking and dancing into the early hours are probably top of the agenda for most people hitting Soho at this time, but for the Soho Angels, the working night is only just beginning.

This group of volunteers spend their Friday and Saturday nights patrolling the streets of Soho, helping people to party and get home safely. Run in partnership between Westminster City Council and the LGBT Foundation, the Soho Angels do everything from offering a safe space inside their 'Night Hub' at St. Anne's Church on Dean Street for the most vulnerable intoxicated people, to handing out more basic provisions, including giving water to those trying to sober up.

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Volunteers for Soho Angels, an organisation that looks after the welfare of revellers in the historically LGBTQ+ area of Soho in central London. All photos by Wunmi Onibudo.

“We’ve literally got everything you could possibly need in here – a mobile phone charger, torch, slippers, foil blankets and even condoms,” says ‘Angel’ May Ngai, gesturing towards her pink supplies bags that accompanies an equally bright pink uniform. Ngai heard about Soho Angels from a friend who also volunteers and decided it would be a good idea to join too, because of her day job working in admin in a hospital.

“A lot of the really drunk people we help don’t need A&E but without us, they might go there and clog up the system,” says Ngai. “So the Angels helping out means that A&E can deal with the most vulnerable.” It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of emergency department admissions on Friday and Saturday nights are alcohol-related.

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After all the Angels and volunteers from St. John Ambulance – who stay in the Hub all night and provide medical support for those who require it – have gathered, the shift leaders for the night conduct a short briefing to ensure everyone knows the safety essentials, as well as offering practical advice on how to deal with intoxicated and aggressive service users. There’s a mix of volunteers represented, with a sabbatical officer, primary school teacher, personal assistant and a police officer all working tonight.

The Angels are then placed into four groups of three people and set off into Soho to begin their seven hour shift. “It usually starts out pretty calm, then around midnight it gets a bit spicy,” says Lee Duffy, a head teacher of a school in Westminster.

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Soho Angels uses St. Anne's church on Dean Street as its 'Night Hub'.

It’s only minutes later when we come across a man stumbling around on Frith Street, inches away from being clipped by cars and motorbikes driving through. Duffy walks over to try and calm the man down as he continues to fall around erratically. “He was a vulnerable, potentially antagonistic to other people, and it's hard to tell if it was due to alcohol or mental health issues,” Duffy tells me after the encounter.

When the streets are packed with thousands of drinkers, it can be difficult to work out exactly who needs help. While the Angels have training in LGBT inclusion and in-depth training from Drinkaware and St. John Ambulance, the experience gained dealing with a massive range of challenging experiences first-hand is invaluable.

Duffy became an Angel in April this year and, as a member of the LGBTQ community, wanted to ensure the area stayed a safe space. “For me, I wanted to do something to support LGBTQ people, especially as homophobic hate crimes are rising, and just having a presence around here can do that,” Duffy says. “It’s really known as an LGBTQ area but the majority of the people we support are not LGBTQ.”

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The 'Angels' hit the streets of Soho.

Councillor Ian Adams, Westminster City Council LGBT+ Lead Member, believes that Soho remains the epicentre of LGBT nightlife in London. “The fact that over the past year we have helped over 5,500 people with the Soho Angels is a good indicator of the high level of demand for this type of service,” he tells me.

Adams mentions they are looking to expand the service to other areas in Westminster, potentially including Leicester Square.

Carol Paige, a sabbatical officer at University College London students’ union, is on her third shift and has seen Soho change over the past seven years she has been at the university. “It depends on what bars you are at,” she says. “You’ve got G-A-Y and Duke of Wellington, but there’s also Be At One and Simmons and a lot of tourists come down, too. I think a lot of the queer community is moving towards east London to places like Superstore and The Glory.”

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It’s just after 1AM outside the Prince Edward Theatre in Soho and the Angels have spotted a man lying down. Duffy and a few other volunteers start chatting to him as he’s slumped against the theatre looking completely out of it. It quickly becomes clear he’s a danger to himself, crashing to the ground every time he tries to stand up.

The Angels help steady the young man and he starts being sick everywhere, only partially reaching the sick bag hovering beneath him. The scene becomes slightly frenzied as police arrive to offer assistance and drunk passers by stop and comment.

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“I’m from out of town, they should have this in Canada,” a tourist in Soho for a night out tells me over noise. “It’s great that they can help people. If I was that bad, it would be good to have something like this to help.”

After spending almost an hour with the severely intoxicated man, the Angels call for a wheelchair to bring him into the Hub, so the St. John Ambulance team can assist. Back at the Hub, volunteers are already supporting a man who has a badly bleeding gash under one of his eyes, as well as a woman who’s had one too many drinks at Simmons.

Sepee, a friend of the intoxicated women, says they planned to move into Heaven next but the night took a turn for the worse before they had the chance.

“I went to the bathroom and when I came back out, she was on the floor in the smoking area, throwing up. She was good until the last tequila shot,” says Sepee. “I didn’t think she was that bad until we got here and I saw her under the lights.”

Sepee has already heard of the Angels after she saw a video of them online. “I just remember thinking, ‘That’s so wholesome.’”

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At a time when homophobic hates crimes are on the rise, with London's Metropolitan Police seeing reports increase from 1,561 between 2014 and 2015 to 2,315 between 2018 and 19, it’s clear that Soho Angels’ LGBTQ-inclusive service is vital.

Being stone-cold sober and walking around Soho in the early hours of Saturday morning is a completely different experience than an average night out. But the Angels wouldn’t trade their places with those partying the night away. “If we don’t do it, who will?” says Carol.

@FinbarrToesland / @wunmio