Decatur Starts Downtown Ambassador Program to address homelessness
By Cathi Harris, contributor
Decatur leaders hope a new program will help address conflicts that have arisen between local businesses and residents and people experiencing homelessness in and around downtown Decatur.
At its meeting on Friday, Decatur’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) voted to spend $20,500 to fund a five-month pilot program to place two-person teams of trained personnel on the Square during the afternoon and evening hours. The teams would serve as resources to downtown businesses to help mediate conflicts with people on the square, as well as provide a way for people to get help with services they need, such as food assistance or shelter.
“In the past 12 to 18 months, we have seen a significant increase in the number of homeless people in the downtown area and on the square,” Shirley Baylis, downtown program manager in the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development, said at the meeting. “Businesses have started having more issues with people panhandling or harassing their customers and, in some cases, threatening their employees.”
The city had been contracting with an Atlanta charity, the Atlanta Dream Center, to come provide services – getting people access to care or, in some instances, provide travel assistance that allowed them to return to families that could help them, she said. But, center workers can only come once a week.
“It is really important, when working with the homeless community, that you can build relationships and build trust over a period of time,” Baylis said, noting that once a week just was not often enough.
The pilot program will fund a group of four ambassadors who will work in teams of two, in two shifts per day. At least one team member each shift will have some basic emergency medical training, as well as training in working with people who have mental illness. Baylis said a retired police officer or firefighter would be a good candidate for this position. The other person would not need specialized training or experience, but could be a college or graduate student in a field of study that would be helpful.
The ambassadors would work Tuesday through Saturday, with Tuesday through Wednesday hours being noon to 8 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday hours being noon to 11 p.m. This would give each ambassador no more than 25 work hours per week and a total of 49 hours of coverage for the downtown area. The pay for the ambassadors with medical training would be $15 per hour and $12 per hour for the untrained positions.
“Based upon what we have been seeing, our issues are right about lunchtime until around 8 o’clock earlier in the week. Then, as we get into the weekend, and people are out and about later in the week, issues get more intense later in the evening,” she said.
The city already maintains a list of agencies that offer services, such as shelters, food pantries, utility payment assistance, or mental health or addiction treatment. The list is given to all businesses on the square, and the ambassadors will have this information as well.
“We want them to also be a buffer, of sorts, between the business owners and the police,” Baylis said. “Business owners often really don’t want to call the police. And, the police often don’t like having to come take a complaint when the person may not even still be in the area.”
In discussing the proposal, DDA Chair Chris Sciarrone said he felt it was important that the city act to make sure that visitors felt safe downtown, but balance enforcement with compassion.
“I think it is really important that people feel safe and comfortable in downtown,” he said. “But it is also important that there is some compassion and outreach to people who really need it. That they just not get brushed off as though they are problems. I think that is the balance we are trying to strike.”
Board member Scott Kentner inquired about extending or moving some of the coverage hours to commute times in the morning, when people are doing to work and students are walking through on their way to school.
Baylis said she would look at the schedule, but also noted that, if the current pilot program went well, they would consider partnering with the City Commission for further funding.
The pilot program will start June 2 and run until October 2, at which time the DDA can consider expanding it.