Affable ‘Ambassadors’

Some people get paid $9.25 an hour just to brighten your day.

While the New Haven Police Department may have recently increased its focus on reducing quality-of-life crimes, the Downtown Ambassadors — who are employed by the nonprofit Town Green Special Services — have seen it as their mission for the past 10 years. The yellow-vested citizens are often a friendly face on city streets, and now, as the downtown area expands and develops, they may be more integral to New Haven life than ever before. Although several people admitted the ambassadors serve a helpful role, budgetary constraints may limit expansion of the program.

Plus, a large portion of downtown residents — Yale students themselves — have little knowledge of the ambassadors’ role.

Ambassadors can be found on the streets from midmorning until 9 p.m. on weekdays, and until 11 on Friday and Saturday nights. Individual ambassadors can shape their work schedules according to their needs: A few employees work full weeks and, as of recently, receive health benefits and IRA coverage. But most work part-time, given the pay rate of $9.25 per hour.

Rather than funding from City Hall, the Downtown Ambassadors program is financed by an extra tax paid by New Haven merchants and by annual gifts from Yale University, the city of New Haven and AT&T Wireless.

But, as Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said, a series of building projects such as the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School on Crown Street and a new supermarket will bring thousands of additional people into the heart of the city over the next few years.

“It will make downtown a more lively, 24-hour-a-day neighborhood,” she said, “which is what New Haven has been trying to do for years.”

This growth — and the host of urban problems that ensue — will make the ambassadors more important, Clark explained.

One key issue is the number of people sleeping and panhandling on the streets, a problem exacerbated this year by cuts to the budgets of various homeless shelters, which lost $340,500.

Program Director Harold Hasell Jr. said he has worked hard to ensure that his employees are trained to approach a person in crisis.

“We want to be able to help these people,” he said. “That means calling the EMTs if we find someone sprawled out on a bench who has had too much to drink.”

Daisy Abreu, the acting director of Town Green Special Services, explained that although the ambassadors’ primary function is as a “walking info center,” they are also concerned with safety. Since the ambassadors are not trained or authorized to use force, this requires “a certain level of partnership with other groups like the New Haven Police Department.”

Hasell regularly attends meetings of the city’s Hospitality Committee, whose primary function is to consider quality-of-life issues in New Haven. He said that it is important for him to keep his “finger on the pulse” of city issues so that the ambassadors can have as big an impact as possible.

The committee recently discussed the problem of late-night noise from clubs near what have become residential areas of downtown.

But the ambassadors are long gone by the time Yale students and other revelers emerge from clubs like Toad’s Place. Still, Abreu said there has been some talk of extending their hours on the weekends to help keep the level of noise and commotion down on the streets.

Increased hours, however, require more funding, a matter currently low on the city budget’s list of priorities.

Hasell said that one of his goals over the past few years has been to make the ambassadors a more noticeable presence. He still has some ways to go, he admitted. When he trains new ambassadors, Hasell explained, he always encourages them to be more outgoing and make themselves accessible to passersby by establishing eye contact and extending a greeting.

Stephan Fortes, who works part-time as an ambassador on top of his job with Yale’s Student Financial Services, said he fields a lot of questions from students curious about what he does.

He explained that they try to make downtown New Haven a more pleasant environment for both locals and tourists.

“We want people to like New Haven so that they will come back,” Fortes said. “And we want them to tell their friends that they liked it, too.”

The ambassadors make this happen in a variety of ways. In part, they act as the longest arm of the New Haven Information Office, providing directions, restaurant recommendations and ideas about where to go on a Friday night to anyone who asks.

They are also happy to escort pedestrians who don’t know where to go to their destinations, or walk with people who simply don’t want to be alone after dark.

John Hasty, who has been working as an ambassador for the last three years, said he believes the program has done a lot of good for the downtown environment.

“It even helps with security,” he said. “Having someone in uniform who sees everything that is going on is good for safety.”

Perhaps most important of all is the effort they make to stay in close touch with local business owners and keep them in touch with each other. As Kim Pedrick, the owner of the store Idiom, said, “they enhance the downtown community. I always see them walking up and down the street and going in and out of stores. They just pop in to keep the lines of communication open.”

Downtown stores also benefit from “Merchant Appreciation Days,” when ambassadors spend a few hours at a business washing windows, handing out fliers about upcoming sales and helping however possible.

Natalie Alexander, a new ambassador, feels that this is the most important part of the job.

“It’s the added human presence within the community that counts,” she said. “It’s about having people walking around who are just there to help out.”

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