Belfast Telegraph

Belfast's yellow-fleeced guardian angels selflessly protecting and serving public

Joanne Sweeney joined the SOS Bus team as they spent another late night on Belfast's streets

They provide "unconditional love without asking for anything in return" and they have become an essential, integral part of Belfast's night-time economy.

The SOS Bus volunteers, in their distinctive bright yellow fleeces, do so much more than give out free cups of tea, coffee, soup, sandwiches and biscuits to whatever soul happens to need them.

Quite simply, they keep the young, the old, the injured, the drunk, the drugged - and on many occasions the nearly sexually assaulted - safe when a night out in town can sometimes go very horribly wrong.

And there is nothing about people throwing up in a bucket, or on themselves, that they haven't witnessed before.

It's after midnight on Saturday and the volunteers - men and women of all ages - are unrelentingly bright, cheerful but always alert.

Saturday night was a relatively calm night for the two buses in Shaftesbury Square and outside the Odyssey. While passers-by call over to the vehicle for a hot cup of tea and bit of craic, praise the charity, and promise to donate some money, there is constant communication behind this convivial scene about people needing help.

"We are the ears of the Ambulance Service," said Joe Hyland, chief executive of the SOS.

"We also work very effectively with the various door supervisors in nearby bars who often alert us to whoever needs our help.

"The police will often drop off a very drunk person with us to help them rather than take them to the station, and we ensure that they get home safe.

"And our taxi drivers in Belfast are fantastic, the best in the world.

"Nobody realises how just good they are at taking care of people.

"We are all working together to keep people safe, particularly bar and nightclub owners. We all have our role.

"Over the past year we have saved the costs of 168 ambulance callouts by taking people to emergency departments."

Once people begin to spill out of bars, restaurants and nightclubs in search of the the elusive taxi home, their vulnerability can become all too apparent.

Women and men zig-zag as they walk, venture out into the road without looking for traffic, sit down on cold pavements with bare legs and arms, walk along down unlit areas.

Joe reckons that SOS volunteers help to prevent two to three sexual assault attempts on women and men each month.

"We can often come across a couple of guys with a girl, who is obviously out of it, and we just ask the guys what the girl's name is, and you get two different answers," he explained.

"We get them away from a possible dangerous situation.

"It's not unusual for our volunteers to find a young woman who is incapable of keeping herself safe (because of the state she is in)."

Joe realises that the SOS presence on the city streets helps to descalate some situations.

"Never underestimate the power of a chocolate digestive, let me tell you," joked Joe.

He added: "While I know that our volunteers often put themselves in dangerous situations, we are seen by people as helpful and non-judgemental."

Volunteer Grace Koch from east Belfast agrees.

"We never ask about how and why a person needs our help, we just help them where we can," she said

"Often it can be just to listen to someone who is depressed or suicidal.

"We don't ask for anything in return."

Things were very quiet at the bus outside the Odyssey with only two young women requiring assistance, both had drunk too much and one had lost her phone. However, one volunteer tells of a record 19 people throwing up in buckets on the bus one night.

One young man, 16 or 17 dressed only in a light T-shirt, is sitting alone on a bench in front of the River Lagan, struggling to sit upright, seemingly unable to use his phone.

But it's all right, he's just been spotted by someone in a yellow fleece. After a cup of tea, he'll get home safe and sound.

Belfast Telegraph

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