(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Three years in, the Safety Ambassador Program continues to work on improving the perception of safety downtown.
The program, launched in 2013 by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., now employs 20 ambassadors who walk the streets of downtown providing services including cleaning and beautification (a contract it picked up in December 2015), offering directions and information, escorting visitors and employees to and from their cars, building relationships with businesses and providing outreach to the city’s homeless and vulnerable populations.
Operations Manager Melvin Eledge said typically the highest concentration of safety ambassadors can be seen downtown in the mornings and evenings.
“That is the prime time when the cleaning service takes place,” he said. “We are also responsible for maintaining the flowers and plant life downtown. The horticulture team works in the morning as well.
Safety ambassadors patrol Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday until 11 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 3 a.m. They also provide cleaning services on Sundays until 4:30 p.m.
Eledge said ambassadors record their interactions throughout the day, tracking what types of services they provide.
He said directions and information sharing make up the majority of the interactions the safety ambassadors have with downtown visitors, along with a large “other” category.
“It’s too difficult to list out everything we do,” he said. “We provide a lot of things — holding doors, carrying boxes, giving out dog treats — a lot of little things. That is a big category because it encompasses so much.”
Whether the program is changing perceptions of safety downtown is hard to know, Eledge said, but he does think it helps.
“Just being on the street in a uniform lends itself to helping people to feel safe, even if we are just walking around,” he said. “Just seeing us, being highly visible, is one of the things we try to do.”
Recently, the closure of Propaganda Doughnuts in the Heartside neighborhood on Division Avenue prompted passionate discussions among stakeholder groups along the Division corridor, including concerns over safety and nuisance issues.
The discussions revealed that the perception of safety in the area may still need a lot of improvement.
Eledge said an ambassador is assigned to patrol the Heartside neighborhood because tensions among different groups — nonprofits and their clients, and business and their customers — are particularly high.
“We identified early on that not only the Division Avenue but the whole Heartside neighborhood really needs a dedicated ambassador,” he said. “We do that with other parts of downtown, too, like the core. Monroe Center and the surrounding area gets a dedicated ambassador on a shift.”
Eledge said Heartside ambassadors are trained to work specifically in the neighborhood, meaning they learn about the nonprofits and the services available so they can better connect people in need with those services. They also engage with the business community regularly to learn about any location-related problems the businesses face.
“We looked to make that Heartside ambassador really well equipped to engage with social service agencies and individuals in need,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that ambassador in particular really understood all of the roles of the different ministries and different missions and could help direct people who were looking for services on whatever scale they might want to engage with them in.”
He said the job of the Heartside ambassador in particular is to build relationships among individuals, nonprofits and businesses in the neighborhood and to serve as a conduit for communication and solutions.
“I think it’s working very well,” he said. “We engage with the businesses quite frequently and encourage them to call if they need something or see something, and we are more than happy to send an ambassador over to assist with people sleeping in a doorway or causing any other issues.”
Eledge said the Heartside neighborhood does experience issues other parts of downtown don’t see as regularly.
“There is a high volume of loitering. We don’t really see that in other parts of downtown. There is a high volume of people in need of services, and that is where those social service organizations are centered.
“We see people who are sleeping in doorways, who are inebriated in public, sleeping on sidewalks and the things the come with the high volume of loitering.”
He said one of the services ambassadors provide is helping inebriated individuals off the street.
“We call them detox escorts. If a business calls or we find someone on our patrol who is intoxicated, we will actively walk them to Mel Trotter to get treatment and the help they need,” he said.
Another often-cited problem is public urination, and the Ambassador Program has tried to develop a solution to that problem as well.
“Last year we tried a pilot program with Heartside Ministries,” he said. “We had a Porta-Potty donated and placed on Division Ave.
“We wanted to see, in general, what if we made something available, would it be used and would it help?”
He said there was flagrant misuse of the bathroom, including as a space for drug use, which eventually led to the decision to remove it.
At this point Eledge said he isn’t aware of any efforts to locate a public restroom facility back on Division Avenue.
Eledge said the Ambassador Program will continue to focus on trying to find solutions that create harmony. He said when talking about the Heartside neighborhood and the Division corridor, it can be easy to focus only on the negative, but a lot of positive things shouldn’t be overlooked.
“The corridor is thriving and doing well,” he said. “I think it’s bringing in people who care about the corridor and the neighborhood and about downtown.”
He noted many once-vacant storefronts are now full and new businesses continue to open.
“You’ve got people who are not only moving in to start a business but who are taking ownership of the neighborhood and want to invest some work and probably some dollars into making it better.”
He also said with the Safety Ambassador Program recently taking over the downtown cleaning contract, there is more opportunity for better cleaning service in the neighborhood.
He said the hope is to have the new trash cans in place in time for ArtPrize in September, and to tie in their rollout with the popular downtown event.
“They will be outfitted with panels that have art from local artists on them,” he said. “It’s a way to make the neighborhood more vibrant while providing a higher level of infrastructure that didn’t exist prior to us taking over the clean team.”
Editor’s note: For more on the Heartside neighborhood, see a three-part series of stories on the Division Avenue corridor on grbj.com.