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Outreach meets need on the street

By Paul Titus

It’s Friday night in Christchurch. A white van pulls up in front of a prostitute on Manchester Street. Instead of an offer to exchange money for sex, however, a cheerful young woman’s voice calls out ‘Gidday, love – would you like a hot drink or something to eat?’

Several blocks further into town the van stops in front of St Luke’s Anglican Church. A group of men are waiting. The five people in the van get out, and one of them leads a brief prayer of thanks.

The men then help themselves to the pies, cakes, and hot drinks on offer through a window in the side of the van. Many are homeless. A young woman among them holds a bag of glue, and occasionally she inhales from it.

For the next three hours the van will make a circuit through the city centre, stopping to give food, drink, conversation, and a sense of support to people on the streets. This is the Salvation Army’s Street Outreach Service (SOS).

This year the SOS celebrates its 10th anniversary. In addition to the mobile canteen, over the past decade it has grown to include a drop in centre for sex workers, a tattoo removal scheme, and an emergency house for single woman.

The SOS is the brainchild of Salvation Army Major Bob Millar. He launched it after he heard television presenter Rob Harley say that the Salvation Army is the best placed NGO to take up street ministry because it still carries the smell of the street.

“We began with a thermos, some Styrofoam cups, and sandwiches in the boot of my car. I went out to see what would happen if we offered sex workers something to eat and just had a talk with them.

“I asked myself ‘what would Jesus do?’ Jesus seemed to gravitate toward prostitutes, publicans, tax collectors and other people no one else wanted to have anything to do with – the outcasts and the marginalised. He was marginalised himself because of it.

“We don’t use the outreach service to push a message or try to convert anyone. We establish relationships. Then, if someone wants to make a change in their life, we are there to help. If we were not on the streets, how could we help?”

Bob says the SOS is self-funding, in part because not everyone in the Salvation Army agrees with all of its methods. For example, in collaboration with the NZ Prostitutes’ Collective, it distributes condoms so sex workers can keep themselves safe.

Recently the service acquired a new van to serve as the mobile canteen. It was financed with the help of donations from individuals, a bank, and the Rotary Club. Christchurch mayor Garry Moore took part in its dedication ceremony.

The mobile canteen operates from 10pm to 1am Thursday, Friday, and Sunday nights. The drop in centre is open the same hours, Monday through Wednesday.

Except for Salvation Army volunteers, only women are permitted in the drop in centre. It provides a safe place where the sex workers can enjoy company, warmth and food away from those who put pressure on them – their male minders, clients, and drug pushers.

Bob says some people are critical because the drop-in centre does not turn away under aged girls who are working the streets. He responds that while the SOS does not judge the young girls, it does alert the police when they are on the streets because both they and their clients need to be protected.

The SOS has one full-time coordinator and a part-time assistant but it depends on the support of volunteers. Bob says 44 volunteers currently help out with the service. About half are church people from eight different denominations.

Ema is one of them. She attends the North City Christian Fellowship and she works on the van every fortnight with several other people from her congregation.

“I have volunteered with Street Outreach for about two years. I can’t speak for anyone else but for me it is a calling. My father was an alcoholic. He was in and out of jobs and I had a hard up-bringing. I felt less than everybody else, yet I never believed I was less. Now when I see people who others treat as lesser, I think about their potential.

“Most of the people on the streets are really lovely people. They are no different than me. The only thing that is different is their circumstances. Sometime people just need a hand up or hand to hold for their circumstances to change. And, as it says in Proverbs 31:20, a good wife extends her hands to the needy,” Ema says.

Bob agrees. He says society looks down on sex workers and treats them as if they have little value. Those who work with the outreach don’t like the sex industry but they separate the women in it from what they do.

“People in the church have no idea of how difficult it is for sex workers who decide they want a different lifestyle. They have to deal with drugs, alcohol abuse, bad friendships, and bad relationships. Churches can put so much pressure on them when they try to leave the stuff that is controlling them that they end up with a whole bunch of new stuff controlling them.

“A transgender person who joined a church told me it how was a good experience because it was gentle. Usually the church throws a basket load of tennis balls at someone who wants to change their lifestyle. One ball at a time is enough, she said.”

Bob recently retired as SOS co-ordinator. His replacement is Major Wendy Barney. For more information on the Street Outreach Service call 027-478 4454.