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At home on the streets

Street Outreach Service van in Christchurch

12 Sep | 2012

Jon Hoyle reports on the Street Outreach Service in Christchurch.

Several hours after his newborn grandson died, Kevin is standing in the darkness on Manchester Street in the freezing drizzle waiting for the Christchurch Salvation Army’s Street Outreach Service (SOS) van.

He’s not anticipating the hot pies, cakes, homemade soup, sandwiches and hot drinks volunteers will soon dispense. He’s badly in need of some company.

The SOS was established 15 years ago by Major Bob Miller to serve Christchurch’s prostitutes, poor, homeless and the lonely. The service operated out of an old refurbished ambulance and it has been touring the inner-city after dark and building relationships with people on the city’s margins ever since.

Tonight, despite the cold, around 25 men and women are standing around the van at its main stop, opposite the now demolished church of St. Luke the Evangelist. Working girls dart in to grab a bite to eat or a drink before darting back to work.

SOS leader Captain Shar Davis and her volunteers—students from Canterbury University—are handing out warm socks and gloves to those who need them. A number of the men gathered around the van are sleeping in the open or in abandoned, quake-damaged houses. One will spend the night in his car, and the temperature is expected to fall to freezing tonight.

One middle-aged unemployed man doesn’t receive a benefit and is sleeping under plastic sheeting in Hagley Park. Between bites of his meat pie, he explains that the van is his most important source of food.

Like Kevin, many are there primarily for the companionship. ‘If you are a lonely man, who better to talk to? People like you,’ Kevin says.

The group standing around the van is a diverse bunch. Some are community mental health patients like the man know as ‘the prophet’ who quotes the Scriptures, and a former university student who quit his studies once the symptoms of his bi-polar condition became unmanageable.

A few are working and turn up for ‘supper and the conversation’. A couple of regulars bring their children along. The group is good-natured and laughter echoes down the otherwise deserted street.

The van operates four nights a week on the edge of Christchurch’s damaged CBD, a district of hostels and low-rent accommodation, now largely abandoned and badly lit. Most of the food is donated by local companies. The van was funded by Rotary and is staffed by Salvationist volunteers, people from other city churches, and students and staff from the university.

Shar’s relationships with her clients often reveal problems that can be solved by other Salvation Army services. So the SOS van serves as a gateway to other support services, she says.

A few homeless people without incomes are being helped to arrange benefits by local Salvation Army Community Ministries centres, the first step in getting off the streets. Others are referred for food, clothing, addiction treatment or other services. ‘We are going places where The Salvation Army and other agencies don’t usually go and we see people who wouldn’t ordinarily make contact with us,’ Shar says.

For Shar, this is also her preferred way of expressing her Christianity and furthering the Army’s mission. ‘It’s not so much preaching with words but demonstrating with love and compassion and recognising that our God is a powerful God who wants nothing more than to be invited into the lives of everyday people,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to say God loves you—but to really demonstrate that, to me, is very powerful.’

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective Christchurch Coordinator Anna Reed says SOS is an ‘absolutely invaluable’ service for women who are one of the most marginalised groups in the city. ‘They may rely on it in order to get something to eat that night or even to take food home for school lunches,’ she says. ‘But I think, most importantly, they feel that somebody actually cares about them—they always speak glowingly in terms of the van.’

In the largely abandoned area where street workers operate, the Salvation Army van is also a comfort for a profession that is regularly the victim of violence and has had three of its number murdered in recent years.

SOS had also provided a drop-in centre exclusively for the city’s prostitutes but the September 2010 earthquake rendered it unusable. Shar says the centre provided a private and safe place to discuss deeper issues or problems with the women without impinging on their work time.

Anna says the centre was important to the women and is sorely missed. Shar hopes to be able to use one of The Salvation Army’s earthquake recovery campervans as a mobile office as a stopgap while a new centre is established.

By Jon Hoyle (abridged from War Cry, 08 September 2012, p18-19)

*The Christchurch Bridge Programme and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective are about to launch a pilot programme that provides an early intervention addictions programme for local prostitutes.