My experience of the night-time streets of Belfast with the SOS NI buses

The Tab took to the streets of Belfast to spend the night with the SOS NI bus. And it’s not just about giving away free soup to the drunken student!


Ever stumbled out of Box to find yourself chatting to a blurry looking stranger in a yellow jacket offering you a free warm cup of tea? Ever wondered what a large yellow bus is doing on Friday and Saturday nights in the middle of Shaftesbury Square?

I spent the night with the SOS NI buses in the Odyssey arena and in Shaftesbury Square to discover what it’s really like to help Belfast’s homeless, drunken and vulnerable people at night.

Shaftesbury Square- 12.30a.m

“I don’t work much later than this time anymore, can’t stand the drunks”, my taxi driver told me as we drove past the usual Saturday night crowd outside Laverys on the way to the SOS NI bus in Shaftesbury Square. I could understand why, through the eyes of a sober person, it must look as if the world is going crazy. Through the eyes of the drunk, three men urinating against a wall wearing pink feather boas is just your typical night out. I wondered what it must be like for the team at SOS NI who volunteer every week to help out some of Belfast’s most vulnerable people at night. As a girl who is partial to a little drink, I was keen to discover whether they have a low opinion of the students that file drunkenly past them on a weekly basis. I know that I’ve definitely helped myself to a few slices of bread and a cup of tea from them on the way back from a night out.

However, I was soon put at ease. Gilllian, one of the many team leaders at SOS Bus NI, soon introduced me to the volunteers at Shaftesbury Square and gave me her experience of volunteering here.

SOS Bus NI at Shaftesbury Square

SOS Bus NI at Shaftesbury Square

“Shaftesbury Square is generally much quieter than the Odyssey,” she began as a group of lads on a night out from Dublin began to chat to the other volunteers. “We normally collaborate with bouncers from the clubs and particularly in Shaftesbury Square, The Welcome Centre. We definitely get a lot more homeless people here than in the Odyssey. Over there it’s mostly just drink-related problems”. She then told me that a volunteer had been talking to a man for over three hours just before I had arrived, because the man was experiencing bouts of loneliness and depression and felt that he had no one else to talk to.

Gillian then introduced me to the paramedic for the night, Matthew. I asked Matthew if he had any particularly bad experiences when working here. He replied that “we just take it in our stride, it’s what we do. We know how to deal with things; if you have a bad time then we know how to deal with it”.

Some of the volunteers at Shaftesbury Square including Paramedic Matthew (furthest right)

Some of the volunteers at Shaftesbury Square including Paramedic Matthew (furthest right)

As I left Shaftesbury Square, I overheard a woman talking to one of the volunteers thanking them as “you helped my son when he was in need”.

1.30a.m

“You don’t mind sick do you?” asked Gillian as we drove towards the Odyssey arena. “Not really” I said, hoping that I wouldn’t have to deal with it. “Good” Gillian laughed, “there’s a lot of it here.”

Already the scene at the Odyssey was completely different to Shaftesbury Square. A small group of people who had obviously been at Box were already congregated around the SOS NI bus. As I stepped onto the bus, a volunteer was helping a man vomit into a bucket. Another girl was passed out on the floor, while another volunteer rang her father so that he could come and collect her. I asked Gillian how she thought SOS Bus NI helped people here and she told me that often “underneath the alcohol, there is often a variety of mental health problems which we address too.”

Some of the team at the Odyssey arena

Some of the team at the Odyssey arena

She told me that “already tonight we have had one attempted suicide over the Lagan”, surprisingly telling me that this was a common occurrence for the SOS NI team.  She described a time when “there was one boy who had planned his suicide, had even written a letter, and had planned to go out and when he got back home he was going to kill himself. It was obvious that he didn’t want to go home and was too drunk for a taxi, so the SOS NI people spoke to him and he eventually got sent to a psych ward.”

I asked another volunteer at the Odyssey why they volunteered with SOS Bus NI. She replied that “I wanted to volunteer because my two sons were at the age of drinking and I wanted to help other people’s children, in the hope that if my two sons needed help, someone would help them too.”

As I finally left the Odyssey with Gillian, I noticed that another volunteer was trying to break up a fight between two men. Another was helping a man with a broken ankle into the Bus. I was immediately struck by how passionate and helpful the volunteers here were. There was not one ounce of judgement from the volunteers with whom I spoke, only, it appeared, a real desire to help out those in need.

SOS Bus NI has engaged with over 220,000 people since 2007 and has managed to save 14 lives, with medical support being provided to 7,000 people. As Gillian asked me at the buses, “What would happen if we weren’t here?”

You can find out more information about SOS Bus NI here, or more importantly donate here.