‘There’s no better feeling than helping...’

ON PATROL Street pastors Kevin Sumner and Val Baker out in Portsmouth
ON PATROL Street pastors Kevin Sumner and Val Baker out in Portsmouth
Portsmouth & Southsea railway station by Andy Cooper

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The weekend is here and Portsmouth is buzzing with people who have got that Friday feeling.

But as drinkers get glammed up for a night on the town, a group of dedicated volunteers are preparing for a very different start to the weekend.

STREETLIFE Pastors in Portsmouth talk to some girls on a night out

STREETLIFE Pastors in Portsmouth talk to some girls on a night out

For as thousands of people descend on the city’s pubs and clubs, Portsmouth Street Pastors will be patrolling the streets to ensure people stay safe – and help pick up the pieces if they find themselves in need.

About 120 volunteers have trained to devote Friday or Saturday nights to selflessly caring for complete strangers since the scheme was set up in the city nearly five years ago.

Even in the driving rain, or bitter depths of winter, the teams work on foot into the small hours, there to lend a hand to ensure people get home safely, assist those who have drunk too much, taken drugs or injured themselves on nights out, or lend a listening ear.

At 76, Terry Shotter is one of the Portsmouth Street Pastors’ longest serving volunteers, clocking up almost five years of service. He says: ‘The council, the police and the street pastors – together we are a trinity looking after people on the streets.

‘Sometimes it’s 2am and it’s pouring down with rain, and people say “you’re here looking after us, and you’re doing it for nothing, you’re crazy!”.

‘But we’re not – there’s no better feeling than helping other people and making sure they’re safe. That feeling is so powerful.’

‘I began when my wife died. I was a mess. I had heard about street pastors up in London, then I heard they were coming down here and they were going to be based in my church. I thought they won’t want me, I’m too old.

‘I went for an interview anyway and was asked to become one of the senior street pastors.

‘I love it. When you see someone who needs help and you manage to get them sobered up and into a taxi when they have lost all their friends, it’s just such a nice thing to be able to do.’

The teams can work up until about 3am every weekend in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Walk, which is peppered with pubs and clubs.

And in the past year, the pastors have branched out to Albert Road in Southsea too.

Whether its handing out flip flops or bottled water and wet wipes to people who have drunk too much, helping to get them to taxis, find friends they have lost or taking them to the late-night Safe Space clinic run by South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust, their motivation is clear – they just want to help.

As they patrol Guildhall Walk, drinkers stop to give the team high-fives, thank them for what they are doing or just for a general chat.

The street pastors belong to over 50 different churches of different denominations across Portsmouth and south-east Hampshire, but insist they are there to listen, not preach.

Terry adds: ‘The ability to listen is so important on the streets. Our actions speak volumes.

‘You just never know who you are going to meet or what is going to happen. There was an incident about a year ago when a man came over.

‘He was very angry. He was in the army and was just on home leave from Afghanistan, He had had a terrible time out there. One of his mates got hit and died in his arms.

‘He wasn’t injured physically, but internally he was in bits. They had sent him home on leave but he had to go back. He couldn’t find anyone to talk to, anyone to listen to him.

‘I said to this guy, ‘‘we have no idea what you’ve been through, but if you want to talk, we will listen to you.’’ We gathered around him and the words just came tumbling out.

‘All he wanted was for us to listen – that’s what a lot of young people want as well.

‘It’s not just getting people into taxis.’

The teams are hooked up to Portsmouth Business Crime Reduction Partnership’s radio link members from pubs and clubs and work closely with CCTV operators at Portsmouth City Council.

The volunteers can refer people to support and advice agencies across the city, from drug and alcohol awareness to police and support for victims of domestic violence .

Fellow volunteer and senior street pastor of more than four years’ service Derek Baker, 53, says: ‘Our role is no not to break up fights or get into a physical situation.

‘We will put ourselves in a place where we can be seen so there is a peaceful presence, but we will also spend time just praying quietly about the situation.

‘We will often put a phone call in to the prayer pastors.’

Derek adds: ‘We can listen in to reports of individuals who may be problematic or information that’s being shared around. Sometimes we will look out for those individuals when they are on the streets because they could potentially get themselves into more trouble.

‘We sometimes just chat to them and bring a bit of calm and peace to the situation. Other times the CCTV will tell us someone’s collapsed or is lying on the ground and they can’t see well enough to know if that person is okay. They will call the street pastors team.

‘It’s sort of the church working outside the normal four walls. We don’t preach – we don’t talk about faith or anything unless people ask us.’