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Downtown ambassadors recognized for work with the city’s homeless population


The Downtown Reno Partnership—which operates the city’s downtown business improvement district—has been in existence for three years. It was only late last year, however, that the organization changed its approach to helping the city’s homeless population from a broad to a targeted one. Now, the BID and the ambassadors who make up its frontline workers have been recognized by the International Downtown Association (IDA), of which many BIDs are members, with a Downtown Achievement Award of Excellence.

The Downtown Reno Partnership employs ambassadors who work on the streets of downtown Reno, assisting everyone from tourists to homeless individuals. In years past, the ambassadors provided services to the homeless broadly. Beginning in late 2019, they began taking a more one-on-one, focused approach to helping individuals—working instead with a few chronically homeless individuals full time.

The goal, according to a release made about the award, “was to assist people as closely as possible while helping them navigate service providers. The Ambassadors now do whatever it takes to keep individuals off the streets and out of the penal system.”

They call this project “One-at-a-Time Homeless Outreach.” Within a month of its starting, ambassadors began moving people into permanent housing. In the months since, more than 33 people have been re-housed using this approach.

The Downtown Reno Partnership submitted “One-at-a-Time Homeless Outreach” to the IDA for consideration of its annual Award of Excellence. It was among 29 qualified entries in the category of “Public Space Management and Operations.”

In a release about the award, David Downey, IDA president and CEO, said, “Downtown Reno Partnership has shown expert application of professional urban place management principles with their project One-at-a-Time Homeless Outreach.”

Downey said it “should serve as a model example to all member communities within IDA,” of which there are about 1,400. 

Downtown Reno Partnership shared before and after images of Robert, who had been living homeless but was helped by the BID’s ambassador Donald Griffin to get things like an ID and a haircut through the “One-at-a-Time Homeless Outreach” program.

Joining together for the common good

Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership, has been with the organization since before the BID officially existed and helped put it in place. He explained how BIDs are formed and funded. He said the Downtown Reno Partnership is Nevada’s first BID.

“Business improvement districts basically come together…when a handful of property owners come together and say, ‘OK, we want to make a difference here, and the city doesn’t have the funds,’” Stettinski said. “Business improvement districts kind of do what cities used to be doing. And it started in the ’70s, when the cities started to run out of money, and they could not properly service their neighborhoods the way they used to.”

In the case of the Reno BID, he said it was formed when business owners looked around and realized downtown “needed TLC just to attract new developers.”

Reno’s BID is funded by participating businesses, which pay a small assessment on their properties’ values to the BID. The county tax assessor’s office collects the money as a small percentage on top of the owners’ other property taxes. Currently, the Downtown Reno Partnership works with a budget of $1.8 million annually.

“So, I’m a little worried for next year,” Stettinski said. “Let’s see how much COVID affected property values.”

In order for a BID to be formed, a threshold must be met of businesses in its area that are willing to participate. According to Stettinski, somewhere around 61% of businesses in downtown signed on for the BID. The Row is the biggest contributor to the BID. Saint Mary’s is another big contributor.

The BID also collaborates with nonprofits like Volunteers of America and Eddy House, as well as with the police and fire department.

“One thing that I’m really proud of is that the work that the ambassadors have been doing reduced the nuisance calls to the police by about 50%,” Stettinski said.

Not conceived as social services, but…

Although the BID and its ambassadors play many roles in downtown, he said that homelessness has been a prevalent concern and focus of their work since its formation.

“The hope was, I think, within the property owner community, that the ambassadors could make some kind of a difference when it comes to homelessness,” Stettinski said.

They are literally—I mean, they are angels.”

But the Downtown Reno Partnership was not conceived as a social services agency, he added. So, to aid efforts to connect with and give assistance to homeless individuals, the BID took a novel approach and began hiring ambassadors who had, at some point, struggled with things like addiction or homelessness themselves.

“We felt that those individuals have more compassion and more understanding for the currently homeless individuals than anybody else,” Stettinski said. “We hired a team. We had one social outreach specialist and, yeah, then started the program. 

“We were pretty successful in the first year. But [what] we observed was that in order for even the formerly homeless individuals, for them to garner enough trust—and to get a homeless person to say, ‘OK, I’m done. Bring me wherever I need to go. I want to make a change’—that takes really long. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

In addition to its ambassadors and two social outreach specialists, the BID has hired a trained social worker.

Stettinski, like others involved in the Downtown Reno Partnership, can point to the cases of individuals who’ve been assisted in gaining services, access to long-term programs and housing. He said the model became a “template” for the BID. All of it is dependent upon the coordination and efforts of the ambassadors.

“Our ambassadors are super well dialed in,” Stettinski said. “They are connected to literally every social service agency in this town. They work with Volunteers of America; they work with Catholic Charities; they work with REMSA; they work the police and fire; they work with the mental health hospitals. So, they know where people can be referred to if it needs to be.”

Angels at work

Stettinski also pointed to the ambassadors’ relationship with the Northern Nevada HOPES community clinic and a needle cleanup operation the two organizations conduct in conjunction with one another.

“They are literally—I mean, they are angels,” he said of the ambassadors. “I have to tell you, their job is so hard. I cannot imagine a harder job—because they are out in the elements all day long, whether it rains or it snows or hot or cold. And they encounter not so nice people all the time…And when COVID broke out, they were the only people downtown because downtown completely locked down.”

Normally, the Reno BID helps the city fund cleaning of downtown’s streets with a portion of its budget. The city uses these funds to hire special needs individuals through an organization called High Sierra Industries. However, during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, these individuals’ cleaning efforts were stalled. According to Stettinski, the ambassadors began taking on the job—removing 20,000 pounds of trash from downtown streets between March and July.

“They were deemed essential, so they never stopped working during COVID, all the way through,” he said. “They helped manage the long lines that wrapped around the Events Center when the homeless individuals were trying to get into the center,” where the city provided shelter through a partnership with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

Port-a-potties were added to downtown Reno when businesses closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Trevor Bexon

“We printed special COVID fliers because a lot of the homeless community has no idea what COVID is… And on the back of the flyer we had a map where we actually posted the locations of port-a-potties that had been installed because there were no bathrooms available. With all of the businesses closed, there was not one single bathroom in downtown except for…at Wingfield Park.”

The BID had 13 port-a-potties installed during the lockdown to provide additional places for homeless people to use the bathroom. Stettinski said these were necessary and that the solution worked well. He noted, however, that when the lockdown ended the concentration of homeless people in downtown created challenges for businesses seeking to reopen. He said people were concerned to return to downtown, but that this appears to be lessening. 

Being there in good times and bad

Austin Pollard, ambassador operations manager for the BID, helped form the outreach ambassador program and its targeted, one-on-one approach to helping people. An important aspect of this, he said, is knowing what organizations and agencies are available locally to provide resources to different homeless individuals with different needs, like veterans or women with children.

He oversees the BID’s 18 ambassadors and licensed social worker and said CARES Act funding may be used to bring on four cleaning ambassadors. As a person who, after leaving the Marine Corps, struggled with both addiction and homelessness, Pollard said he tries to be up front with potential new ambassadors.

“When I go through the interview process, I let people know there’s good days and bad days,” he said. “You’re outside. You’re dealing with the elements on a daily basis. You’re on your feet. And a lot of times the interactions you’re going to have are not going to be positive. Most of the time you’re working with people who are vulnerable, just having a rough go with life. So, their mindset is usually negative. So, some of the interactions they get can be very negative and stressful. That’s where having ambassadors that have an understanding can be empathetic to people’s situations is important.”

He said one of the biggest issues he’s personally seen is that people on the street can become so vulnerable and so buried in their day-to-day worries that they feel as if they don’t exist. He said he always challenges ambassadors to get to know the names of the people they’re assisting on a regular basis.

Two Downtown Reno Partnership ambassadors talk to people living homeless who wait to outside the Reno Events Center in March 2020 to get shelter and breakfast. Image: Eric Marks

“People who make jokes about people who are out in the streets talking to themselves or anything—really, it’s because people stopped listening to them,” Pollard said. “Some of the most amazing, intelligent individuals I’ve ever met are the ones that are at the hardest part of their lives. And you’re just sitting, talking to them, and you’re amazed by the experiences they’ve had and how much they have to offer the world. 

“It’s about catching them when they’re still in a place that they believe in themselves enough to ask for help and then taking that opportunity to really guide them through. Being able to be there for people at their good times and their bad times is a great experience.”

Pollard said he believes that when shown compassion and then given the opportunity to use their experiences to help others, people in a community can lift one another up. This has been the case for Donald Griffin. Griffin is a co-founder of the Reno Black Wall Street program and has been a Reno Ambassador for two years. He’s been clean and sober for four years.

“I was drinking and drugging for 23 years, and I have coming up on four years of being clean and sober now,” he said. So a lot of the people I deal with out here, they’re people from my past. We have that type of history. They’ve seen me overcome the addiction and lifestyle that they’re still accustomed to right now.”

Asked what he does on a day-to-day basis, Griffin responded, “Save lives. Save lives.”

Seeing the unseen

An example of the more specific work he does is with targeted efforts to help individual people. One man—a guy named Robert—is receiving help from Griffin to get an electric wheelchair, as well as a social security card and a birth certificate. Robert’s 71 years old. He and Griffin have more than just a friendly rapport. Griffin even helps Robert to shower and said that’s the rewards of coming out and helping people. 

While speaking with This Is Reno, Griffin saw Robert across the street and hustled through the intersection on Fourth and Center Streets to help push his wheelchair through it and down to the Record Street shelter as the pair chatted and joked together.

Downtown Reno Partnership Ambassador Donald Griffin who is helping to get a new power wheelchair for Robert. Image: DRP

Griffin spends most of his time working on Fourth Street near the Record Street shelter. He said these days homeless people come to him more often than he has to seek them out to lend assistance. Still, he said, the job of an ambassador may not be for everyone—echoing Pollard’s sentiments.

“I feel if you’re not a people person, this job is not for you—not at all,” Griffin said. “You have to have thick skin because you’re dealing with over 200 people…Sometimes they’re having a bad day and you have to be able to deal with that. You have to be able to deal with the n-word, the ‘your mother’s.’ If you can’t deal with your mother being cussed out, don’t do it. You’ve got to become them. You’re in their area. You’ve got to become them.”

Also like Pollard, Griffin sees the issue of homeless people feeling like they’re invisible to the rest of the population.

“When my daughter was younger, around one year old, when she wanted to ignore you, she’d close her eyes—so you don’t exist anymore,” Griffin said. “That’s why I call this population down here the ‘unseen,’ because when you see us, you don’t see us. And the stipulations you think is that they’re going to ask you for something, or they’re going to beg. And a lot of times they just want you to say hi. They want to be acknowledged.”

Finding resources to finish the work

Griffin said he feels “the ambassadors do a great job.” He said he feels like the broader community does pretty well, too. However, he’d like to see city officials take homelessness more seriously. Homelessness, he said, “is a reflection of how our city thinks and how our city feels about the people around us.”

“Homelessness is not a situation,” he added. “It’s the way people think, and they can be trapped in their own minds. I don’t think we really have the resources for these people right now. I believe if everyone that’s at tent city said, ‘OK, we’re ready to get help right now,’ what would the city do? Where would they put them? How would they help them?”

He doesn’t believe the city has the resources available or the right frame of mind, currently, to address homelessness within its borders.

“I would add another 10 like minded people like myself to come out here and join a team, whether it be the ambassadors or just the city officials, to come out here and get to know these people, shake hands and walk a day in their shoes,” Griffin said.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.