Nelson's friendly after-hours 'doormen'

JAMES GREENLAND
Last updated 13:00 06/02/2013

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Roving ambassadors are helping keep Nelson's streets safer with a mix of sweetness and savvy.

The Nelson street ambassadors patrol the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer months when alcohol can fuel problems.

Hard to miss in their bright orange vests, with fists full of free lollipops and condoms, the ambassadors have been on the beat since November. The patrols will end in the middle of this month.

"People are aware we are the condom and lollipop people, and that gives us an 'in' with people. It can be quite humorous," shift supervisor Colin Chapman said.

"Later on it's condoms that people are after, but earlier, before 1am, it's lollipops."

Every night is new and different, Chapman says, but he has noticed a common theme running through almost every incident he has witnessed - excess alcohol and mindless violence.

"You are going to get nutters in every town, Nelson is no different."

This summer the ambassadors have been working in conjunction with police and the Nelson City Council to deliver the "know your limit" message about sensible alcohol consumption. Not all Nelsonians have absorbed that wisdom, he said.

"I have come out at 10pm and seen middle-aged women comatose in shop doorways - they'd been out to dinner, opened the wine, and had one too many."

"I have seen drunk guys walk up to other guys who they don't know and smack them over the face for no reason - mindless stuff.

"I have seen people get king-hit about four or five times. That really winds me up because there is no reason and no warning. I find it quite upsetting.

"It's like, 'why have you gone and done that?', and there is no answer."

Nelson City Council's team leader of social development Marg Parfitt said the council has coordinated the service since 2004, in conjunction with the Health Action Trust.

"Our Street Ambassadors now have a very good rapport with the young people who are out partying over summer. Because of that, young people know there are people they can talk to if they are in need of help or advice throughout the night.

"They are there to help create a safe social environment for us all, not just young people," Parfitt said.

With $20,000 funding from the Ministry of Justice, through the NCC's Safe City Project, $15,000 from the council and $6000 in sponsorship from the Nelson Business Society, the Street Ambassadors work in conjunction with police, Maori Wardens and Nelson Community Patrol volunteers who monitor closed-circuit television cameras from around town on weekends.

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Local contractor Health Action provides recruitment and training for the 20 or so Street Ambassadors hired over summer.

Each Friday and Saturday night six brightly-vested ambassadors split into two patrol groups to wander the central city, from Christ Church Cathedral, along Collingwood St, to the banks of the Maitai River.

"We are kind of the doormen of town - meeting and greeting and being friendly with people," Chapman said.

Nelson mum and first-time Street Ambassador Kate Bevan says: "What's cool is being able to help people who have been separated from their friends.

"We will talk to them, give them bus timetables, point them in the direction of taxis or call a taxi for them - that sort of thing. We are helping people, and I really like that."

Chapman said there was a specific type of person that recruiters were looking for to become Street Ambassadors.

"We are looking for people who can handle youth, because they can be really up in your face about it... someone who can keep their calm, who is not confrontational.

"Our main goal is not to stop trouble, but to stop trouble starting - to divert youth from troublesome situations.

"We have no policing powers, but we are just here to help, to be their friends. We are not here to separate fights, we have got to talk them out of it, with lollies, that's our weapon.

"The main skill is street skill - knowing when something is saveable and when it's beyond saving.

"All we got is our personality."

Chapman, a middle-aged business student at NMIT, has a special motivation for putting his personality to use as a city guardian.

He got involved with the ambassadors about four years ago, after his good mate was seriously assaulted by a group of youths late one night in central Nelson.

His friend lay unconscious in a garden bed all night before he was found. Luckily, there was no lasting physical damage, although Chapman said mental scars from such an experience can be worse than bumps and bruises, and that his friend will probably never recover fully.

"I thought, 'what can I do to help this situation?' It was just something I could do."

He believes the ambassadors are having a positive effect on the city.

"If it stops that one bad thing happening then it's worth it, plus our presence discourages people."

The ambassadors conduct surveys of punters in the bars and on the streets to try to pinpoint what makes Nelsonians feel safe, or unsafe, in the city at night.

"For girls it is predators, whereas for the guys it's drunks and violent idiots.

"Also, it's bad street lighting in parts of the city and a lack of police presence, last year anyway.

"This year there has been an increased police presence on the streets, which has really helped."

Chapman said most nights on patrol there is not too much trouble, although last week one of his team members nearly got punched in the face.

"Ruth was stood outside Dolls House [a central city strip club] about 3.15am. A guy tried to get in, the bouncer grabbed him, and he got nasty, his arms flapping around.

"I had seen him approach, and thought he looked dodgy - he had that 1000-yard stare.

"He looked like he was on P because it took about five guys to hold him down."

Despite that incident, he says it is rare to see drug-related problems in Nelson.

"I don't think there is a drug problem, mainly alcohol.

"It's young guys, drinking all night, coming out of the pub. They haven't scored a chick, what are they going to do?"

In each Street Ambassador patrol group there is at least one trained first-aider, he said, although the most regular wounds they ended up dressing were skinned knees on drunken young girls who had tripped and fallen over their high heels.

"If they know their limit they are not going to get that blood."

- The Nelson Mail

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