I was reminded about the SOS Bus, which for many years was an important part of Southend night time economy (and in other towns where it operated) when I read an article recently in the Southend Echo (see here) and comments on social media. It was in the context that the service that was run from where the bus parked in Southend High Street during the night, which provided a base from which to assist the public, especially those in distress and needing help, especially if medically related, was cut in 2017.
For many years I was a Street Pastor, going out on a Friday or Saturday night in that same period, usually in and around Southend High Street, where much of the local night time economy operated. Invariably we passed the bus and spoke to the volunteers who run the service and it was a good relationship. Not just because we got on and the SOS volunteers were genuinely nice characters, but because often we helped the same people and often what we did overlapped and complemented each other (e.g. we might find a distressed and needy person and direct them to the bus).
Although I had stopped street pastoring in 2017, I along with many was concerned the service, which seemed to me to offer excellent value for money given most of those helping were volunteers, stopped and what did eventually replace it (and I am loathe to criticize things I don’t know) did not appear anywhere as good as the service the SOS was offering. Again, I do not know the full ins and outs about funding but I am given to understand the local Council who helped to commission and fund the service decided in order to save money in a period of austerity they would come up with different solutions that might include cutting the service altogether, scaling back and finding alternative provisions that might provide better value for money. At least I hope that was the case.
The sad thing in recent years, as money belts have had to be tightened, is that all sorts of services have had to be cut back in order to balance the books. This will continue to be an ongoing discussion and one where I can see both sides of the argument, although I am inclined to think cutting services like the SOS bus is a false economy and is about putting profit before people. Even so, realism ought to prevail and even good ideas need costing. I am glad though that the SOS bus does operate in places other than Southend and in Southend although not in the High Street. But I would love them to come back to the town, not just because of nostalgia but because it made an important positive impact on the lives of many and did much that if one’s eyes are merely on “the bottom line” would miss, like empowering volunteers to serve the community.
I was invariably impressed with what they did and enjoyed many a chat and cup of tea. Sometimes things were very quiet but then all of a sudden it seemed things got very busy. The volunteers to the man (and woman) adapted superbly and in unison (involving Street Pastors if needed) to calmly deal with whatever situation that arose, led by its inspirational leader, John Bastin, and his lieutenants.