This year, the University of York Students’ Union launched Nightsafe, a student-led scheme that provides help and support to students in vulnerable situations during nights in town.
Launched primarily to complement welfare and safety provision in York city centre, the team works closely with York’s clubs and police, ensuring that students who are overly intoxicated are able to get home safely. The service, the first of its kind in the UK, is similar to the ‘Street Angels’ scheme, yet contains no religious element. Its aim is to provide a friendly face on nights out and a person for students to turn to if they require assistance.
The Nightsafe team is currently made up of 46 volunteers, all of whom have undergone intensive training to ensure that they are fully equipped to deal with difficult situations that may occur on nights out.
The first round of training, which took place in September this year, consisted of a five-day-long training course, covering topics such as active listening, provided by Nightline, and drug and alcohol awareness, provided by the charity Lifeline.
Other training included conflict management, provided by the North Yorkshire police, which instructed members on how to deal with aggressive and non-cooperative people and first aid training, provided by the Yorkshire Ambulance Service. The courses were both organised and paid for by YUSU.
The first Nightsafe shifts began in this year’s Freshers’ Week. Though the initial training prepared the teams for a broad range of situations, the volunteers were still very much thrown in at the deep end.
Bhavin Patel, Nightsafe’s Project Coordinator, tells me just how “hectic” the first shift proved to be. “The Sunday of Freshers’ Week was the first time we were out. Straight away we were dealing with incidents.
“Generally, you’d be dealing with one, and another would suddenly happen right next to you.” The week involved numerous calls to the home-safe taxi, a vehicle supplied by Streamline that agreed to carry vomiting students, without an additional charge, as well as the provision of water bottles and foil blankets, to students who needed them. The committee also ran an A&E liaison team, who helped any students in need of the emergency unit.
For some, this help was a genuine matter of life or death. “We dealt with a woman who wanted to commit suicide,” says Patel, “but who we fortunately managed to get talked out of it. The volunteers did a really good job getting out there.” The feedback Nightsafe received for their efforts has been incredibly favourable, with the police, CCTV cameras and bars all commenting that they have been a “massive help”. The team justifiably believe that they have made a big impact this year, in terms of making York safer for new and returning undergraduates.
“Some students initially turned away, saying to their friends, ‘Who are these people in the bright orange jackets?’ But the more they’ve become aware of us, the more they’ve realised that we are just a friendly face to be there if you need help.
“On nights out, drunk people will now come up to you, even if they don’t need help, and say ‘Thank you for helping my friend the other week’,” Alice Lovell, a Nightsafe volunteer, tells me.
“We definitely have awareness now,” states Publicity and Social Media Secretary Peter Gaffney, “not just with what we do, but as a brand.” This brand awareness has reached unprecedented heights. Nightsafe now boasts the fastest growing student Facebook page in the region, as well as one of the fastest growing pages in York itself.
Its online response has been simply phenomenal. “Whenever we post something on Facebook, hundreds of people look at the post, not just on their news feed, but actively click on them to read them,” Gaffney says.“We already have twice as many fans as Street Angels do, and they’ve been operating for a lot longer than we have. That was a personal goal.”As well as aiding York’s nightlife, Nightsafe has also launched other safety schemes, including ‘Bob the Burglar’, in collaboration with the police.
The scheme, which ran on 20 and 26 October, saw Lovell, Jemima Busby, Welfare and Community Officer, and a YUSU staff member, working alongside the police by testing doors at homes throughout York to see if they were locked.The scheme has gone a long way in helping to make students more aware of the risk of home robberies, as Lovell is quick to point out.
“As students, you’re targeted more. We could tell which houses belonged to students, so clearly burglars could too. Most people were shocked. There was one girl who was on her own, who was in the shower when we arrived, and the door was unlocked. The police were in her house for a good ten minutes shouting ‘Police!’ but she didn’t hear anything. But from the door I could see an Apple Mac, iPhones and another laptop. The whole place could have been cleared out within ten minutes, and she didn’t even realise. It was really quite scary. Its definitely made people more aware, and I think they’re really grateful for what we did.”
Working with the police has also been an eye-opening experience for many of the volunteers. For Lovell, it has led to a new found respect for both the force and club doormen. “The bouncers and police respect you so much more on nights out. They treat you so much differently when you’re wearing a high visibility jacket – they’re really nice to you! Though many people have a strong perception of bouncers being “authoritarian” and “cold”, Gaffney tells me they are in fact quite the opposite. “The thing we’ve found is that the bouncers really do care about people.
They might turf someone out of a club, and you might think that’s the end of it, but we hear on the radio that they’ll then phone CCTV and say this person is drunk and alone, can you watch them please. “They’re really, really good, and it’s the same with the police. I’ve been amazed at how fast the police have been responding. I was on a shift that started with quite a major incident, and the police came within 25 seconds of me radioing it in.They are really hot on it, they just don’t have the manpower to do everything they’d like to do.”It is for this reason that Nightsafe has proved to be so useful. “It’s only a small team, but it makes a big difference. Three people can do a lot of work.”
On a personal level, the Nightsafe experience has led to a different perspective on the students’ own nights out.Patel states that he has learnt “just how intense the night-time economy can be,” whilst Lovell and Gaffney have become far more aware of what both themselves and their friends are drinking.
Nightsafe hope that other universities will soon follow suit, introducing similar schemes across the UK. “We want to send the template to other universities,” Patel tells me. “In bigger cities like Manchester and Liverpool, Nightsafe teams would be really helpful. “We’d love it to be nationwide. That’s our long term goal.” The team have made an undeniably important contribution to the safety of York students, something which Patel is incredibly proud of. “Everyone has the same goal: make York safer. Nightsafe is really important, and York’s a lot better with it.”
If you are interested in becoming involved in Nightsafe, please contact [email protected]