Ambassador Program Combats Berkeley Homelessness

Photo: Members of the Berkeley Host Ambassador Program have for the past year been making connections with the homeless in Downtown Berkeley to improve
Chris McDermut/Photo
Members of the Berkeley Host Ambassador Program have for the past year been making connections with the homeless in Downtown Berkeley to improve "street behavior."

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City ambassadors patrol the public sphere

As part of the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative, the city of Berkeley now has ambassadors patrolling downtown areas to provide information to homeless people and make those areas feel safer in general.

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Correction Appended

For the past year, Carmen Osuna-Gibson has seen the homeless people she works with turn their lives around, from eating out of trash cans to holding jobs, from self-mutilation to calculus classes. She works with the homeless because she has been in their place.

Osuna-Gibson is one of five ambassadors who patrol Downtown Berkeley working to help the homeless as well as residents and business owners. The ambassadors were hired because they had graduated from Options Recovery Services, a program that helps people "break the cycle of crime, broken families and homelessness caused by addiction," according to the program's Web site. After completing this program, the ambassadors are able to reach out to people in similar situations on a more personal level.

The ambassador program-part of the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative passed by the City Council in 2007 to improve "street behavior" in the area-celebrated its one-year anniversary last week. The initiative includes measures that increase access to public restrooms as well as ban smoking in certain areas. So far, officials say the initiative has made noticeable progress.

"We previously had issues with people sitting around and loitering and smoking," said Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates. "We're getting much fewer complaints in the mayor's office."

Sinai said 15 people have been placed in homes since the program started and that there is a definite change in street behavior.

However, Maria, a homeless woman, said the initiative has done little to help her.

"I'm helping myself," she said. "The city is not doing anything. I can't really rely on them."

But Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the ambassadors have been able to establish connections with 77 people, 35 of whom have made what Badhia calls "significant improvements" in their lives. This includes anything from engaging more often with the ambassadors to entering literacy programs to holding jobs.

"It's a step-by-step process," said Badhia.

Deryl DeWitt, an ambassador who patrols with Osuna-Gibson, said he has also noticed a decrease in the number of people sleeping on the sidewalks and around stores, a result that has been beneficial to business owners.

"It's absolutely noticeable ... There's been a decrease in trouble," said Tanya Roth, owner of Tapioca Express on Shattuck Ave. "It's hard for business owners when the sidewalk smells like urine ... and there's people outside your cafe."

Though ambassadors like Osuna-Gibson and DeWitt have been able to decrease the amount of loitering around Downtown businesses by referring people to different shelters and agencies, the problem of how to accommodate everyone still remains.

"We don't know if there's space or not," said DeWitt. "It hurts inside."

One shelter that DeWitt and Osuna-Gibson said they refer many people to is Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel. The shelter is only open for six months of the year and took in 148 youths last season. Shelter manager Michelle Mason said although there are generally only a handful of youths at a time who must be referred elsewhere, it would be better to have additional alternative shelters.

"We're the only shelter that serves people (of) this age group," Mason said. "We can take on a few extra (youths) if necessary ... but it's really tough to close those doors."


Correction: Tuesday, October 27, 2009
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 10 people have been placed in homes since the program started. In fact, 15 people have been placed in homes since the program started.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Emma Anderson at [email protected]

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