Homeless help recognized

Downtown programs for down-and-out celebrated

Melanie Bassett, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, addresses a gathering of volunteers who work for the Downtown Ambassadors and the Jesus Center’s Cleanup Brigade.

Melanie Bassett, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, addresses a gathering of volunteers who work for the Downtown Ambassadors and the Jesus Center’s Cleanup Brigade.

photo by Vic Cantu

Donate to the cause:

To donate to the Downtown Ambassadors program or the Jesus Center Cleanup Brigade, go to www.downtownchico.net, call 345-6500, or walk in at 330 Salem St.

While the issue of homelessness in downtown Chico often fosters negative sentiments, two programs—the Downtown Ambassadors and the Jesus Center Cleanup Brigade—are bringing distinctly friendlier vibes to the city’s core.

“I’ve seen the brigade change workers,” said William John Reick, volunteer coordinator for the Downtown Ambassadors. “The homeless brigade members shine and get purpose reinstalled into their lives.” Several have used it as a springboard to employment, he said.

The programs marked their six-month anniversaries under the supervision of the Downtown Chico Business Association’s Clean & Safe Chico campaign at an open house Tuesday morning (July 29) on the ground floor of the downtown parking garage between Fourth and Fifth streets.

“We just wanted to make sure to mark this day, because it’s been six months since the DCBA sort of took these programs under our wing,” said DCBA Executive Director Melanie Bassett in addressing an audience of about 30 people. She drew applause as she announced that the programs have raised $25,000.

The Downtown Ambassadors’ goal is to make downtown more welcoming through outreach efforts. Ambassadors are highly recognizable in their yellow T-shirts as they provide homeless people with advice and information on social services. They also provide friendly directions and information to anyone else—visitors and locals alike. Bassett praised Reick for tripling the number of ambassadors over the past six months and for establishing credibility with the homeless population.

The goal of the Cleanup Brigade, on the other hand, is to give homeless individuals work cleaning downtown’s sidewalks and alcoves. The program employs current or former Jesus Center clients, some of whom are paid. They work two-hour shifts six days a week and can be seen in the mornings in fluorescent orange vests picking up litter from the sidewalks and gutters.

The ambassadors curb the “free-for-all” behavior in which some homeless people engage, Reick said.

“If you’re doing drugs in the [City] Plaza,” he said, “we will approach you and ask if we can find you a service that can help get you off of [drugs].” Ambassadors also attempt to steer street dwellers toward housing programs.

Reick recalled one 18-year-old woman with mental health issues who became homeless in January after dealing with a turbulent life at home. Her mother asked the ambassadors to keep an eye out for her; when they found her, they directed her to the 6th Street Center for Youth, where she received counseling and was provided housing. She recently earned her high school diploma. That’s just one example of how the ambassadors are able to make a difference, Reick said.

Richard Elsom, project manager for both programs, also lauded the ambassadors.

“The Downtown Ambassadors want to make sure one group is not taking away from another group’s use,” he said. “We’re not yelling at the homeless. Many just want someone to look them in the eye and treat them like a human being.”

He said he wants to enlist more college students in the ambassador program this year.

“Last year it was hard because it was tied up with the armed guards of the R-Town Downtown Coalition,” Elsom said, referring to the private, armed security force that patrolled downtown in late 2013 to regulate homeless behavior.

Bassett individually thanked about a dozen of the program’s principals, volunteers and donors in the audience, which included City Councilwomen Ann Schwab and Mary Goloff.

She also introduced a new fundraising plan: selling T-shirts featuring a bicycle graphic by popular local artist Jake Early. The shirts are $20—$15 of which goes directly to the programs—and are available at the Thursday Night Market, through the DCBA and various downtown businesses. Nearly 100 have sold since going on sale last week.