For Alexandra Robertson, the best part of her job is connecting with Arcata’s unhoused community. Having struggled with mental health issues and homelessness in the past, Robertson knows the importance of making people in that position feel comfortable and cared for.
“I know how important it is to just feel seen and heard,” Robertson told the Outpost recently, during a walk around the Arcata Plaza. “If people had not helped me and listened to me and made me feel like I was heard, then I wouldn’t have been able to get out of that hole.”
Roberston is one of Arcata’s new Community Ambassadors – a group of folks hired by the City of Arcata to serve as a helpful presence around the Downtown Northtown neighborhoods. You may have seen them during the last several weeks, picking up trash, weeding the planters or doing other generally helpful tasks, sporting a green vest with City of Arcata seal on the front and “Community Ambassador ” typed in black letters across the back.
Modeled after similar programs implemented in other cities, the Community Ambassador program was approved by the city council to operate for two years using money from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The program was officially launched in October as a collaborative project between the Arcata Police Department and local non-profit Arcata Main Street.
Robertson is one of seven program employees recently hired by the city – six ambassadors and one lead ambassador. Once hired, the ambassadors received one week of training in city policies, de-escalation and communication strategies, city resources and local homelessness services. The ambassadors work throughout Arcata’s business district – roughly between Highway 101 and J St. and Seventh and 18th Streets – on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
The team is overseen by Sgt. Luke Scown, APD’s community outreach team supervisor. Scown said that even though APD oversees the program, he wanted to be clear that the ambassadors operate separately from the police department and that they are not seen as a form of law enforcement.
“They’re not out there to be security guards, they’re not out there as a law enforcement presence,” Scown told the Outpost. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re being watched.”
So if they are not there to watch people, what exactly are the ambassadors doing? Well, Robertson helped us better understand by letting the Outpost shadow her during part of her shift. We met at the ambassadors’ office, a city-owned building behind the Arcata Transit Center off of E Street. After doing a little bit of administrative work, Robertson went out on her first walk around. Gradually making her way from the office to the Plaza and around the perimeter, Robertson used a trash grabber to pick up recycling, garbage and many cigarette butts along her way.
Picking up litter is one of the ambassadors’ duties, and one that Robertson said is already making a visible difference in the downtown area. In a span of less than three weeks, the ambassadors have recorded collecting more than 100 five-gallon buckets of garbage. And picking up trash is a pretty important service right now, because there isn’t anyone else in the city specifically in charge of that task. Scown said that the Public Works Department takes care of larger messes – such as illegal dumping and things like that – but not cleaning up litter.
And Robertson said that the ambassadors picking up trash seems to encourage other people to do the same. “We used to fill a bucket [with trash] every 20 minutes,” Robertson told the Outpost. “Now there’s way less trash to pick up. A lot more people seem to be cleaning up after themselves.”
As Robertson walked through the Plaza, she also stopped to talk with many of the people hanging out in the area – a man selling jewelry on the grass, a local unhoused woman known as “Sunshine” and an unhoused man people referred to as “Bunny Man” because he carries around a pet bunny rabbit. Robertson said that getting to know the Plaza regulars has been a very eye-opening experience, and that some people she used to be a little wary of she now considers friends.
Building relationships with the people downtown – the homeless, the business owners and other community members – is another expectation of the ambassadors, so that people know who the ambassadors are and can ask them for help when they need it. For the homeless community, ambassadors can help connect them to services, such as Arcata House Partnership. For the business owners, the ambassadors may offer help with asking a homeless person to leave their businesses entryway.
Again, the ambassadors are not meant to act as law enforcement and if they witness something illegal or dangerous, they are supposed to remove themselves from the situation and call the police. Basically, the ambassadors are there to solve small problems that don’t necessarily need the help of the police, so that the police department can dedicate more of its time to more serious calls.
“It frees up time for police to do other things, to be places where they are absolutely needed,” Robertson said. “And that’s really helpful, because everyone is short-staffed right now.”
One example Robertson shared was a time that a business owner had to call the police on an aggressive individual who was causing problems. Robertson asked if the business owner needed any help, and the business owner asked if Robertson could wait with her until the police arrived.
Scown said that another ambassador recently saw a very small trash fire start on the Plaza and poured water on it to put it out. If someone else had seen the fire first, they would have likely called 911. Not to say that making a 911 call isn’t the right thing to do – it is. But Scown said that this was a time when the police and fire department were not really needed. Responding to minor calls like that takes up a lot of the department’s time and resources.
Apart from finding and disposing of a used nitrous oxide canister and being offered some cannabis to smoke by a friendly passerby (which we declined, of course), nothing particularly exciting happened during the Outpost’s walk with Robertson. But it did seem like people appreciate the ambassadors’ friendliness, and the ambassadors appreciate their role in the community.
Each of the seven ambassadors has different strengths that they utilize, Robertson said. She tends to focus on engaging with the homeless community, where other ambassadors have more relationships with the business owners. One of the ambassadors – Gene Joyce, former owner of longtime furniture store Arcata Exchange — does a lot of weeding and gardening in the planters around the Plaza. Another ambassador, Daniel Osteman, said that he thinks that the ambassador program helps improve people’s perception of downtown Arcata and hopes that the program will be able to expand to other neighborhoods.
“All in all, I think it’s been a very positive presence – just to be here and be attentive,” Osterman told the Outpost. “Part of why I got into this was to help keep things beautiful, in light of the way the world is going. It’s a small enough community that you can make an impact on things like that.”