Eugene’s Downtown Ambassadors perform different duties, but all of them are meant to achieve the same outcome -- making people feel welcome and safe in downtown.
Recognizable by their blue attire, the ambassadors are the City of Eugene’s visible and friendly downtown representatives. Each ambassador is a combination of visitor guide, social worker, behavior monitor, custodian, patient listener, and gentle rules enforcer. As they make their daily rounds on foot, the ambassadors work to make downtown vibrant and comfortable for everyone.
“Whether you are visiting from out of town, or you live on the streets of downtown, or you own a business, we want you to feel like the ambassadors have your back,” said Downtown Manager Eric Brown, who supervises the ambassadors. “It’s a tough balancing act, but they achieve the objective by building relationships with people of all different backgrounds.”
The Downtown Ambassadors began 3½ years ago, after City leaders were urged to focus on public safety and social services downtown. The program was patterned after the City’s Park Ambassadors, who perform similar duties in Eugene parks. The downtown program started with a single City employee monitoring behavior in the Park Blocks. Following on the success of that initiative, the number of ambassadors grew so they could cover more of downtown. Today, the City employs five downtown ambassadors.
The ambassadors work in pairs, walking 12-to-15 miles-a-day in the heart of downtown. They typically will tell visitors where to find the public library, restaurants and other popular places; share information about City events with businesspeople and downtown workers; refer people to social service providers; and inform people about rules on smoking, drinking in public, dog leash laws, blocking sidewalks and other subjects.
Their interactions with people are based on the group’s core values of teamwork, trust, confidence, empathy, public service, and adaptability.
"As a team, we are people that genuinely love helping people,” said Lead Ambassador Sarah Stich. “When we say hi to someone on the street and give them eye contact, we are humanizing folks. Too often after we say hello, someone will say 'That is the first time someone looked at me and smiled in three days.’”
The ambassadors also pick up litter, report and remove graffiti, and set up tables and chairs for public use on the Park Blocks and in Kesey Square. Ambassadors often work with other City staff and community partners to support various events downtown. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them other tasks, including sanitizing tables and chairs after they have been used, and handing out personal protective equipment to individuals and businesses.
As the City’s representatives, ambassadors play an important role downtown by keeping an eye on what is happening in public spaces.
Like the red-capped Downtown Guides employed by Downtown Eugene Inc., the ambassadors are not law enforcement. However, they will call Eugene Police when they see a crime being committed, or CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) when they see someone experiencing a mental health or drug or alcohol crisis.
“Having the ambassadors out on the street is just like having another set of eyes out there for us,” said Paul Bishop, the manager of the Eugene Police Department’s downtown public safety station.
The ambassadors, who wear backpacks that carry first aid supplies, water bottles and other items, have gotten to know many of the people who spend time downtown, including homeless individuals. Last year, ambassadors conducted slightly more than 1,000 “welfare checks,” on people downtown.
Sometimes the ambassadors will combine the goodwill from those relationships with gentle powers of persuasion to get people to comply with rules.
Homeless people often say “‘You guys are great,’ but, at the same time, we are telling them that they can’t smoke, and they have to follow other rules,” said Ambassador Jarrett Anderson.
Often, ambassadors will patiently listen to someone who may be upset, allowing the person to vent their frustrations before they lose control. Ambassadors, who keep track on their interactions with people, call these “listening sessions.”
“If someone is upset, getting ramped up, we can take that on and absorb it a little bit, and hopefully keep it from becoming an issue to the rest of the public,” said Ambassador Kyle Knox.
The presence of the ambassadors can sometimes eliminate the need for police to respond to low-level crimes downtown. In the past, for example, if someone had been drinking alcohol in Kesey Square, the police may have been called, which could have led to an arrest in front of many people.
Today, the ambassadors, like CAHOOTS, do “crisis intervention and de-escalation so there doesn’t have to be an arrest in Kesey Square,” said Stich, the lead ambassador. This avoids a trip to jail for the individual while maintaining a more welcoming environment for people visiting downtown.
Brown, the City’s downtown manager, said the ambassadors and others in the City are working to provide a “safe and welcoming environment in downtown for everyone, whether you are a business owner, property owner, employee or someone who is unhoused. But there are standards of behavior that are expected.”
Heaven Clausen has operated the B~Heavenly food cart in Kesey Square for more than 4 years. She remembers difficulties caused by some homeless people in the square before the ambassadors started working downtown. The ambassadors have improved conditions in the square, Clausen said, mainly by calming agitated people down, and calling for assistance if needed.
Clausen’s also grateful for the way the ambassadors keep the tables and chairs clean for customers and the public, especially during the pandemic.
“I definitely appreciate having them here,” she said.
Downtown Ambassadors by the numbers
Frequent tasks completed by ambassadors in 2020.
1,003 welfare checks (making sure that people were OK)
467 business contacts
409 listening sessions with businesspeople, downtown employees/residents
351 informing people about smoking rules
320 listening sessions with unhoused people/others
167 referrals to social services providers
109 drug paraphernalia removal
59 litter removal
39 graffiti reporting
Meet the Downtown Ambassadors. Back, left to right, Jarret Anderson, Sarah Stich, Kyle Knox, Jordan Ellison.
Front, Maria Velazquez.