Belfast's SOS Bus faces end of road due to funding
A "life-saving" nighttime service which has helped around 300,000 people in Belfast over the past decade could shut this summer due to lack of funding, organisers have warned.
The well-known 'SOS Bus' provides medical attention, emotional support, refreshments and clothing on Friday and Saturday nights in Belfast city centre.
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The volunteer-run SOS NI service also operates response minibuses, offering transport to hospital, home or a safe place.
The group works closely with nightclubs, and volunteers carry out foot patrols, checking the streets for people in distress.
However, the organisation, which last year provided medical treatment and emotional support to over 1,400 people and handed out 33,680 cups of hot drinks, is now at risk of closure.
SOS NI's Interim Chief Executive Karen Gallagher warned that the consequences could be "catastrophic", placing extra stress on the emergency services.
"Things are very tough, and there might not be an SOS Bus in a couple of months," she said.
"It costs £250,000 per year to run the service, and only the generosity of volunteers has kept it going for so long.
"The Public Health Agency (PHA) provides £35,000 per annum, but only until 2019/20. We also received £54,000 from the Department of Justice (DOJ), which finished last year.
"Belfast City Council funded our attendance at St Patrick's Day this year, but they don't fund our weekend nighttime service.
"We are in talks with the council, and are hopeful they will provide funding.
"We need organisations to step up to the plate and provide financial support."
SOS NI relies on 140 regular volunteers, who give up one Friday or Saturday night per month.
In addition to offering a safe environment, each of the 60ft "big buses" has a medical bay where a first responder can treat minor injuries and assess whether to send a casualty to hospital.
"A lot of people fall and cut themselves, are involved in fights, or hit their heads," said team leader Gill Purdy. "If it's serious we can take them to A&E in our minibuses, allowing the Ambulance Service to respond to emergencies."
Last year, nearly 950 clients who were treated were under the influence of drink or drugs, 110 were homeless and 118 were injured. Over 350 were taken home or to a safe place by minibus, while 87 were taken to A&E.
Team leader Ian Purdy, Gill's husband, believes that "a lot of people will slip through the net" if the service goes.
"I do think that lives could be lost, and it makes me frustrated."
A PHA spokesperson said it "appreciates the value and commitment of the SOS Bus team and volunteers".
She added that the PHA have a five-year grant award agreement with SOS NI to provide £35,000 per year until 2019/20, when "future plans for funding allocations will be considered".
A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said members would consider the group's new funding request "in due course".
No response was received from the DOJ.
To donate, visit www.sosbusni.com or the SOS Bus NI Facebook page. Or text SOSB28, plus donation amount, to 70070