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Ambassadors of the Avenues | A novel city program gives rehabbed addicts a lifesaving role. | By Eve Kushner

Wayne Jones, 52, looks like a former linebacker. Actually, this massive African-American man was once a Silicon Valley computer technician. Then he developed a crack addiction in his 30s and wound up homeless, living in People’s Park by day, alleyways by night—when he wasn’t incarcerated for possessing stolen credit cards or similar crimes. Finally, Jones says, “I got to the point where I was tired of going to jail.” He entered rehab in 2007.

Since September 2008, Jones has worked for the city of Berkeley as an “Ambassador” in the Berkeley Host Ambassador Program. As part of this innovative peer-to-peer outreach program, Jones still spends the bulk of his time in and around People’s Park.

Now, though, he’s constantly in motion, patrolling the Telegraph Avenue area during eight-hour shifts in search of needy people, including his old friends. Jones communicates easily with this population. In an ideal interaction, he’ll not only forge a bond with someone who is down and out, but will also connect them with social services that provide shelter, free community meals, Supplemental Security Income, and the like. “When you get tired of being sick and tired, we’re here to help you,” Jones says. “We’re here to point you in the right direction.”

Under the 20-month-old program, the city hires newly recovered alcoholics and addicts, felons, and the formerly homeless—people who, like Wayne, might otherwise be unemployable. All six of the current Ambassadors are graduates of Options Recovery Services, a stringent 12-step rehab program that not only helped them clean up, but also found them housing.

Wearing brown jackets that say “Need Assistance?” the Ambassadors patrol 23 square blocks in the downtown Berkeley area, from Delaware Street to Channing Way and from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Oxford Street. They also cover the head of Telegraph Avenue. “For the most part, we were all homeless with addictions,” says Jones’s colleague, Carmen Osuna-Gibson, “so we’re not condescending when we come talk to you. We want to help you. If you’re not ready, that’s OK. We’ll be here next week. You’ll be here, too.”

As liaisons between merchants, the police, and the homeless, the Ambassadors have three missions: to decrease inappropriate public behavior—by anyone, homeless or otherwise; to assist anybody in need; and to eliminate blight.

“It takes maturity to size up a situation right away and then to be able to interact appropriately,” says Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio. In the past, she notes, the people the city hired to work on Berkeley’s meaner streets “didn’t have the background that would allow them to address the whole host of problems you encounter on the street.” The Ambassadors, however, fit the bill. “They know what street life is like,” Maio says. “They’re not put off by whatever encounter might come their way.”

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The three newest Ambassadors are part-timers: John, a Native American man with waist-length, silvery hair; Diane, a fresh-faced, bookish woman; and Robert, a white-haired African-American man, whose finely etched features bring to mind Billy Dee Williams. (To protect their privacy, these Ambassadors are referred to by first name only in this story.) The full-timers—Jones, Osuna-Gibson, and Deryl DeWitt—have been Ambassadors since the program started. All six are clean-cut and healthy-looking, with intact teeth. Personable and articulate, they move easily between different social strata, sharing a vocabulary that favors formal terms like “incarceration,” “intoxication,” and “marijuana” over slang.

DeWitt, a 42-year-old man with the light complexion of Barack Obama, worked as a warehouse supervisor until alcoholism made him hit rock bottom in a way that, he says with a wry grin, “wasn’t pretty.” He ended up in a homeless shelter. Osuna-Gibson, his patrol partner, is a small, sturdy, Mexican-American woman in her late 40s. A legal secretary for many years, she managed to get by, despite alcoholism. But eventually, her drinking caused a tangle of troubles, as did a violent partner. She escaped from him, living in her station wagon and in shelters with her daughter and two sons, all in college now.

After her secretarial career ended, Osuna-Gibson says, “I used to run a hotel in [Oakland’s] red-light district with all the drug dealers.” As she scans the scene on Shattuck Avenue, Osuna-Gibson notices subtle changes that most people would miss: Her heightened awareness, she says, is a result of that prior life in the neighborhood of 24th Street and San Pablo Avenue. “I’ve seen stabbings, shootings, and all sorts of stuff,” she continues. “Not only am I book-smart, but I’m street-smart, and I use the combination out here.”

As the Ambassadors stroll the streets, they toss a casual greeting—“Hello, good morning”—to passersby. The ritualized phrase may seem inconsequential, but these veterans of the streets have been trained in the subtle art of starting conversations, and they know not to come on too strong.

Eventually, after several days or even weeks, a “Good morning” will be returned by someone who’s never spoken up before. Later, they may exchange names. Then, DeWitt says, comes the long-awaited “open door,” when someone they’ve been cultivating finally asks an Ambassador what he or she does. That’s the moment, he says, to jump in with the crucial words: “Do you want another winter out here? This is too much. Get yourself inside. How can we help you?”

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With a national reputation for strong social services, tolerant citizens, and a mild climate, Berkeley has long sustained a sizable homeless population, particularly since the 1970s, when then–Governor Ronald Reagan closed many state mental hospitals. The city has repeatedly addressed homelessness through housing programs, a mobile crisis team, a homeless outreach team, and programs such as the Berkeley Guides, a precursor of the Host Ambassador Program.

Those bedding down on the pavement each night aren’t necessarily there because of the current economic downturn and subsequent foreclosures, according to extensive surveys by Alameda County’s nonprofit EveryOne Home program. As of last July, says EveryOne Home, 38 percent of the “literally homeless” people in the county were chronic substance abusers, 24 percent were severely mentally ill, 20 percent were domestic violence victims, and 17 percent were veterans of a wide range of U.S. wars. Of those living on the streets, 71 percent have one or more disabilities, whether physical or mental.

Even when people are strongly motivated to get off the streets, it’s tough to hook into the system. For one thing, shelters don’t accept drop-ins; potential residents must register first by phone. “It’s hard to get through,” Osuna-Gibson explains. “And you’re not going to stand at the pay phone all day.” Another hurdle that many fail to overcome: Shelters automatically reject drunk people, who must wait 30 days to try again.

As for permanent low-income housing, that requires Supplemental Security Income, which in turn requires an identification card. Only the sane and sober can navigate the bureaucratic maze, which leaves many street dwellers out in the cold.

The current Ambassador program, which has a two-year contract, originated in the fall of 2008 when Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council passed the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. To fund the measure, parking meter rates rose 25 cents an hour. That pays for five programs, including the Ambassadors, whose tab runs the city $200,000 a year.

So far, so good. “What we’ve found that’s so amazing,” says Deborah Badhia, operations director of the Downtown Berkeley Association and supervisor of the downtown Ambassador program, “is that after a year, our Host Ambassadors have developed a lot of relationships with people who would never talk to anyone. They’ll say, ‘Well, maybe I do want housing.’”

Local merchants, such as Mark Fleming, manager of Half Price Books on Shattuck, say the Ambassadors provide a useful service to them, too. If someone enters Fleming’s store belligerently, screaming obscenities and scaring shoppers, he calls the police. But if homeless people merely gather outside, hassling customers for money, he calls the Ambassadors instead. In such non-crisis situations, Fleming says, the busy police will likely arrive too late to mitigate the damage. The Ambassadors, on the other hand, are often on the scene within minutes. “They seem to have a pretty good rapport with most of those people,” he says.

According to Osuna-Gibson, the Ambassadors tell the crowd, “Excuse me, we’ve had a complaint. We’re the liaison between the business and the police, and we really don’t want to call the police.” The group disperses, she says, “because they don’t want to go to jail. They know they’re doing something wrong.”

At Tapioca Express on Shattuck, just a few doors down from Half Price Books, owner Tanya Roth praises the Ambassadors’ treatment of troublemakers in her eatery. “They know these people by name, they’re familiar with their situations, and they’re able to deal with them in a much more organic sense. My way would just be to kick them out. The Ambassadors work toward finding a solution, rather than just shuttling them from one place to another.”

Not that bad behavior is the special province of those who lack an address. “We’re targeting inappropriate people,” director Badhia says. But, she continues, “we’re not assuming that everybody who’s inappropriate is homeless.” Moreover, she maintains, a person on the streets may be drunk but nonetheless “super mellow” and well behaved, largely keeping to themselves. The Ambassadors sometimes return from patrols without a single unpleasant incident to report.

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On patrol, Osuna-Gibson and DeWitt routinely check in at McDonald’s on Shattuck at University Avenue. With its low prices and relaxed environment, it’s a homeless haven. Today, a woman nursing a cup of coffee at one of the plastic laminate tables calls out to them. She lives on the streets—hence the battered suitcase at her feet—and Osuna-Gibson has already given her a city housing guide. Now the woman is ready to follow through, but she’ll need move-in money. Osuna-Gibson wonders about subsidized senior housing, but it turns out the woman is only 54, though her dark, weathered skin makes her look considerably older. Some senior housing accepts people 50 and older, and she’ll need to call the Homeless Action Center to find out which ones might take her. Then she’ll go on a waiting list, probably for a year.

This woman, Osuna-Gibson notes as she and DeWitt proceed down University toward Milvia Street, used to live in a doorway with a male friend who was terminally ill with cancer. After his death, Osuna-Gibson says, “She got kind of introverted for awhile. She wasn’t real responsive.” But now, she observes with a smile, “she’s coming back out of her shell.” Osuna-Gibson doesn’t find it hard to elicit such stories: “They want someone to listen to them.”

Around the new year, Osuna-Gibson and DeWitt devoted hours to locating a missing homeless man, “Frail Bob.” (The Ambassadors meet so many Bobs that they assign each one a nickname to avoid confusion.) After he broke a hip—he slipped and fell outside of McDonald’s—she and DeWitt called an ambulance and waited with Frail Bob until it came. They never heard, though, what had become of him. Trying to track him down a few weeks later, they inquired at his low-income hotel, and learned he had a sister on the East Coast, whom they called immediately. Frail Bob, it turned out, was now in a nursing home. Osuna-Gibson resolved to visit him and keep the sister updated on his progress. “We go a step further,” Osuna-Gibson explains.

On Shattuck near Kittredge Street, Osuna-Gibson notices three scruffy, malodorous teenagers with a sign requesting food and money. They’ve traveled from Maryland and seem to have come to the end of the road. Osuna-Gibson tells them about a youth shelter, one with showers, food, TVs, housing information, GED programs, and therapy. “It’s a really cool place. It really is,” she says cheerfully. The travelers say they’ll definitely look into it.

But many needy people on Berkeley’s streets, the Ambassadors have learned, neither solicit nor want their help. They may be too mentally ill, or too isolated and traumatized to seek services. Many refuse assistance because they think they’re fine, even if they’re so far gone that they regularly wet themselves, as does one man they’ve repeatedly tried to reach.

“They [the Mental Health Department] were going to give him a hotel voucher,” Osuna-Gibson adds. “All he had to do was take a shower.” But in the end, the man balked, and the deal fell through.

And while some homeless people have a grudging respect or even gratitude for the Ambassadors’ work, others view them as snitches because they collaborate with city officials, reporting to the police at monthly interdepartmental meetings, and conferring about issues such as where dealers are stashing drugs. Recently, the Ambassadors even helped catch a counterfeiter.

According to Badhia, “They get good at all types of problem-solving, because they’re paying attention, they’re doing follow-up, and they’re consistent.” But ferreting out drug stashes and tracking petty criminals doesn’t always endear the Ambassadors to the population they serve.

Hardest of all, though, says Wayne Jones, is breaking through to those who deliberately opt to be homeless and unemployed. “The harsh reality is that a lot of people out there are doing that to rebel against the system,” he says. “Some of those people never had a job and never had the ability to work within the system. They may not have had any education past eighth grade.”

Beyond frustrating, the Ambassadors’ jobs are also fraught with physical risk. Even helping merchants clear people from the doorways to their shops each morning can be a dangerous task. While simply announcing that “it’s time to be up and about” may not sound scary, the blanket that shelters a sleeper may also conceal a weapon or an aggressive dog. And on occasion, a person who awakens in a foul mood will lunge at the offending Ambassador.

In fact, city officials don’t want to place the Ambassadors in harm’s way. Berkeley police Sergeant Joe Okies and Officer Amber Phillips, who personally train the Ambassadors on how to properly report crime, assert that merchants dealing with actual crimes—such as panhandling aggressively (particularly near ATMs), making vulgar comments, and urinating in public—rather than mere annoyances, should contact the police. “Although the Ambassadors have become a valuable resource in our crime-fighting efforts, they do have their limitations,” he says. “They are not police officers and do not have the training to confront a suspect.”

Nonetheless, DeWitt, who appears unflappable, says he constantly worries about tangling with people who are armed. His well-being depends, he says, on his ability to read other people’s moods from afar. “If there’s a bad vibe going on, I’m not communicating with you,” he says. “Not today. Maybe some other day, but not today.”

Osuna-Gibson also worries about armed assailants, particularly because she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of the domestic violence she has suffered. To protect herself, she refuses shifts on Telegraph, which she considers a particularly mean street. “I get really stressed out there. People are just so angry,” she says.

But the countless problems downtown never overwhelm Osuna-Gibson. “They teach us ‘one day at a time’ in recovery,” she says. “So it’s one person at a time, one block at a time and it will all get worked out.”

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Eve Kushner (evekushner.com) is a freelance writer in Berkeley. Her newest book is Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters.

 

 


Saving grace: Carmen Osuna-Gibson and Deryl DeWitt, employees of Berkeley’s Host Ambassadors program, chat with a homeless man on Shattuck Avenue. Once down and out themselves, the Ambassadors reach out to their former peers. Photo by Deborah Badhia.