When “shooing away” doesn’t work… Or why we were right to stop the Ann Arbor “ambassador” program

berkeleymallcopRemember how, a few months ago, a bunch of us got up in arms over plans hatched by the Ann Arbor DDA to hire a small army of Segway-riding “ambassadors” to cheerfully open doors for well-healed visitors, remove unsightly band flyers from telephone poles, and shoo away “street people” who might otherwise interfere with commerce by scaring away wealthy suburban shoppers? Well, as you might also recall, we won, at least for the time being. The Ann Arbor DDA, in response to the public uproar, begrudgingly voted to defund the program before it could get off the ground… And, given today’s news coming out of California, I suspect members of the Ann Arbor DDA are glad that they didn’t fight harder to overcome objections and push it through.

The following headline comes from The Guardian.

Violent footage emerged on Thursday that appears to show a hospitality ambassador for a Berkeley downtown business association attacking a homeless man, who was blamed for the incident and later charged with a count of misdemeanor battery.

That’s right, a “hospitality ambassador” savagely beat a homeless man who refused to be “shooed” away, and then had said homeless man charged for battery. Fortunately, video of the incident surfaced to exonerate the man, who hadn’t even thrown a punch in his defense… Here it is.

There are any number of reasons why Ann Arbor’s proposed “ambassador” program was a terrible idea. It would have stripped the downtown of any unique character it had left, for the sake of improving conditions for commerce, as though commerce is the only reason public spaces exist. It would have essentially said to locals that it was no longer their job to smile, offer directions, and open doors for visitors, as those jobs had been outsourced to paid “hospitality ambassadors.” And, perhaps most importantly, it would have shifted certain police functions to an inadequately-trained, privately-controlled quasi-security force, ill-equipped to deal with complex situations involving people who often suffer from mental illness… And, as we just saw in Berkeley, the consequences of that can be disastrous.

Ann Arbor, it would seem, dodged a bullet.

If I were a member of the Ann Arbor DDA, I’d be writing thank you letters this morning to everyone who came and protested during their meetings this winter.

It was naive of Ann Arbor’s DDA to believe that their smiling greeters, with minimal training, could simply “shoo away” what they referred to as “street people.” As many of us said at the time, if they really wanted to deal with the issue in a meaningful way, they would not only have killed the ambassador program, but they would have shifted the funds to an entity like the Washtenaw County Project Outreach Team (PORT), that has a proven track record when it comes to successfully working with at-risk populations. Thankfully, they killed the downtown whitewashing program, but, to my knowledge, they haven’t yet taken that next step, and considered ways to meaningfully address those individuals they refer to as “street people.”

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  1. Frosted Flakes
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. The Ambassador program, or anything similar, should never happen in Ann Arbor. People behind these types of programs do not understand the dynamics of street life. In my opinion an ambassador program in AA would result in more crime. The crime would just be more organized.

  2. Posted March 28, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Wow! What a horrible situation in California. I am so glad this won’t happen here. Thanks so much for shining a light on it, Mark! I’m sure your blog about it helped stop the program from happening here. whew.

  3. Robert Davis
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    What sociopath, psychopath person would they get to take these ambassador positions?
    I guess, we found out, who,,,

  4. Robert Davis
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Let alone the originater, of the idea, yikes. Wouldn’t want to live next to that person.

  5. anony
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    i am highly skeptical of anything involving a segway anyway

  6. XXX
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone remember candidate for Mayor Steve Pierce when he used to roll around town on a Segway dispensing justice?

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