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Downtown Ambassadors strive to improve quality of life

DGRI’s Downtown Ambassador program works to make life downtown better for residents, businesses and workers, while addressing the homeless and panhandling population.
Downtown Ambassador, Veronica Aho, welcomes the people of Grand Rapids with a smile

Downtown Ambassador, Veronica Aho, welcomes the people of Grand Rapids with a smile /616 Lofts

Contact the Downtown Ambassadors directly:

Melvin Eledge, leader of the Downtown Ambassador team, can be reached during the day at 616-250-8263.

Most of us who live or work downtown have seen them: the Downtown Ambassadors. They’re easy to find on segway, bike or foot in their teal polos with white “info” logos on their shoulders. The question buzzing around town is: what services are they providing to the downtown landscape?

According to Melvin Eledge, Manager of Operations for the Downtown Ambassador program, the Downtown Ambassadors provide services to a complete cross-section of those who live, work and frequent downtown.

What is the Downtown Ambassador program?

The Downtown Ambassador program is part of the national Block by Block program, which is sponsored through Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. DGRI’s (formerly the Downtown Development Authority’s) new CEO, Kris Larson, had the idea to bring the program to Grand Rapids. Having seen similar programs flourish in other cities, Larson felt “there was huge potential for the Downtown Ambassador program to meet some needs people may not have realize weren’t being met,” said Eledge.

He and his team of eight maintain a presence downtown 400 hours each week. They guide tourists to their destinations, act as safety escorts, offer advice on retail shops and overall make downtown a friendly, inviting place to live, work and play.

“[You can ] think of us as an on-street concierge,” Eledge says.

Who are the Downtown Ambassadors here to serve?

“We’re here to serve anybody in Grand Rapids,” Eledge says. “Even if you’re a homeless person or a panhandler in Grand Rapids, we’re here to serve you too. That service looks very different depending on what kind of experience you’re trying to have in Grand Rapids.”

For tourists and destination shoppers, it may be directions to the best cheeseburger joint in town. For those who live and work downtown, it may mean being an escort at night, offering an umbrella or giving advice on retail shops. For panhandlers and homeless, it’s similar to social work, but Eledge made one thing clear: the Ambassadors are here to make life downtown better, no matter who you are.

One of the eight Ambassadors is focused exclusively on connecting and building relationships with those in the Heartside District who are in need of assistance. The other seven provide general services to the community at large at specific deployment locations, such as Monroe Center. These general services range all across the board and no particular demographic is prioritized higher than another.

“It just depends on who needs what in the area at any given time,” Eledge says.

Ambassadors and public safety, retail environments

"One aspect of the Ambassador program is making sure downtown residents are not constantly being asked for money as they go to and from home and work," says Eledge. Similarly, Ambassadors help business owners keep their doorways clear from people sleeping or panhandling, which can deter customers. This has reduced the number of complaints made to police.

“It gives the business owners and residents an outlet for when they see things like that going on. They can report it to us, and we can try to do something about it,” Eledge says.

The Ambassadors work to mitigate panhandling by helping those engaging in these activities get their needs met. “The police are not going to really do anything about panhandling, because as long as the people are not aggressive, they’re not doing anything illegal. The police don’t have time to be social workers,” Eledge pointed out.

Downtown Ambassadors can be contacted regarding safety concerns or suspicious activity. The Ambassadors work to mediate these situations or, if necessary, contact the proper authorities. The team has “hotspot” markers are used to keep tabs on areas which consistently attract public safety hazards.

Ambassadors and panhandlers, homeless

A small but key component to the Ambassador program is connecting those who are homeless or panhandling with the services that can help them get back on their feet. Because of the increasingly cold weather, the team is working to find everyone who is sleeping outdoors “a shelter, temporary living, or permanent living, which would be best,” says Eledge.

When addressing the issue of panhandling, the Ambassadors “try to get to the core of why someone is panhandling; what is the need they’re trying to meet, and how can we help them meet that need in a different way,” Eledge says. “If you’re panhandling for dinner, we can connect you up with Dégagé and you can mop the floor for a free meal. We can help you get to Mel Trotter for shelter or we can get you to the Exodus Program for alcohol rehabilitation.”

Eledge recounts one homeless man who had fallen on hard times due to an alcohol addiction. The Ambassadors were able to get him connected to the help he needed to get off the streets through Mel Trotter and other ministries.

“He was appreciative. He told us straight up: he panhandles, but it’s the last thing he wants to do to make a living. He told us that he really wanted help to move past this barrier in his life and we were able to help him out,” says Eledge. 

It’s important, he notes, “just to have extra eyes and ears on the ground, to interact with these people, and to keep an account of who’s there. A lot of times, we may be the only people they interact with in a positive way.”

He recounts another story of a gentlemen who was too weak to leave the doorway he was occupying. The Ambassadors worked with adult protective services and the EMS to get him much needed medical attention.

“If we weren’t here, who would do that? Someone would probably have seen him and called the police to have him hauled off to jail. But instead, we’re trying to work with services in the area to get him back on his feet,” says Eledge.

Each of the Downtown Ambassadors is equipped with an iPhone and an internal app which allows them to build a report on each person of interest, creating a trail that helps the Ambassadors keep an eye on suspicious activity, hotspots and - just as importantly - to follow up with services people may have received to see if they need additional help.

Paying it forward

“Our emphasis is always quality of life. We really focus on people, and the fact that any one of us could be in a much less fortunate position. If the economy tanks, our jobs go away, or we get addicted to some substance, that homeless person in the doorway could be us.”

The team leader mused, “if it were me lying in that doorway, I would rather have somebody try to help me than write me off,” he says.

"Taking care of our neighbors, including those non-traditional neighbors," Eledge says, "gives our city a good reputation. Grand Rapids is a place where when we see [someone on the street], we try to help those people and make their lives better, not just push them out to become some other town’s problem."

Those non-traditional community members, he says, won’t cease to be a nuisance to the rest of the community until their basic needs are met.

“The better long term solution is to help people meet their needs, to get the services they need to get a better life like you and I have. Then, they’re going to become a resident in Grand Rapids, or a business owner in Grand Rapids, or work in Grand Rapids,” says Eledge. “They’re going to be better community members for it, and they’re probably going to pay it forward. It’s going to strengthen the community as a whole.”

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