The Reno man had recently kicked a heroin habit when he got word that his mother was dying of cancer in Tucson, Ariz. The news hit him hard. He had an emotional breakdown outside the offices of the Downtown Reno Partnership, where the loud disturbance alerted one of the Downtown Reno Ambassadors inside the building.
The incident on July 20 might easily have drawn the attention of law enforcement. It’s not uncommon for someone acting out an emotional crisis on a public street to wind up in an altercation with police, resulting in an arrest and/or injuries to those involved. Not this time.
Cailen Gersch, then an outreach specialist with the Ambassador program, got the man calmed down. She and others in the office started working the phones. They got the man to Tucson four days later. He reunited with his sisters and was able to help care for his mom. The man later called the Downtown Reno Partnership to thank the staff for their help and let them know he was still taking his sobriety one day at a time.
It was no accident the incident occurred outside the partnership’s door. Gersch had helped the homeless man get into a drug treatment program a month before. So when he needed help again, he knew where to find it. That’s why the two-year-old program exists, to make a difference, one incident, one street, one life at a time. It appears to be making an impact.
Misdemeanor calls decrease by 50%
Reno’s crime and code enforcement statistics since 2018 indicate it has already made a difference on the safety, environment and livability of downtown Reno.
Reno Police Department Deputy Chief Oliver Miller said the department has seen a 50% decrease in misdemeanor citations related to service calls downtown in the two years since the Ambassadors have been working in the area.
“The assumption is what we’re seeing here is what has happened in other cities (with those programs),” he said. “It’s not uncommon when a team like this comes in.” There’s also been a reduction in graffiti and in code enforcement calls, city officials said.
That translates into savings: a police officer’s time, factoring in individual pay, supervisors’ time and other variables, comes out to about $150 per officer who responds to a service call. Code enforcement officer’s response time works out to about $85.
Savings also can be calculated in human lives. “We’ve seen a decrease in jaywalking downtown, people who are walking in roadway instead of on the sidewalk,” Miller said. “That’s extremely important because (overall) we’ve experienced an increase in vehicle verses pedestrian fatal accidents. Many of those pedestrians who were walking in the roadway were homeless.”
“Ambassadors help us to direct our efforts. It’s a really good collaboration that’s especially important given our staffing issues. (The police department) hasn’t grown much since the early 2000s. We haven’t caught up to our pre-recession strength and they help us fill some of those gaps in the services… It’s definitely a worthwhile program.”
He said the Ambassadors work with homeless people every day and “they educate and warn them about staying safe and staying out of the roads…. They are a referral system for us and help us identify chronic issues in the downtown core.”– Reno Deputy Police Chief Oliver Miller.
The Ambassadors work with the multi-disciplinary “Clean and Safe” teams, made up of police, parks and recreation workers, Reno firefighters, medical teams, code enforcement officers, social workers and other specialists, he said. For example, when Ambassadors spot health and fire safety problems at encampments of homeless people, “they can call in those resources… It’s not just an enforcement situation. We’re able to connect the resources to the people who need them, to veterans and to individuals in crisis, whether it’s a mental health situation, alcohol or substance abuse, problem.
“At end of the day, enforcement alone is not the answer,” Miller said. “It’s a part of it, but it’s not the only answer.”
Program wins international award
The International Downtown Association last month honored the Downtown Reno Partnership with the Downtown Achievement Award of Excellence for its work and initiatives related to the One-at-a-Time Homeless Outreach program, which began a year ago. The goal was to get people to service providers and keep them off the streets and out of police cars and jails. From July 2019 to June of this year, 33 people have been moved into permanent housing with the help of two Ambassadors designated as “outreach” specialists.
“Getting 33 people off the streets and into long-term treatment and housing is a small number compared to the population of hundreds of homeless people in our area,” said Alex Stettinski, executive director of the Downtown Reno Partnership. “It shows what can be done. It’s not a solution to all homelessness and it’s not presented as one. But it’s a piece of the solution.”
The same can be said of the Ambassador program itself; it’s not a magic elixir to cure downtown’s ills, but a prescription that begins to restore the district’s balance as the vibrant core of the city, he said.
Downtown businesses created improvement district
The Downtown Reno Partnership, an improvement district paid for by downtown businesses, in 2018 contracted with Streetplus, a company that has so far trained teams and set up Ambassador programs in more than 80 cities around the nation. The Partnership now has 17 Ambassadors on its team. Five are on the streets at a time, working two shifts seven days a week.
The teams work with city crews to help clean up graffiti, trash, weeds and snow. They patrol downtown and get to know homeless people and assist business owners, residents and visitors. Team members also provide escorts to anyone who may be nervous walking to their destinations at night. They respond to business owners’ complaints and help direct street people to support services. They build relationships; they connect with the people they see every day.
Reversing decades of decline
“Downtowns are in disrepair in every city,” Stettinski said. “It’s a very complex issue. Neighborhoods evolve in waves, (they) flourish, fall apart, and then flourish again… In many ways private investment into neighborhoods help revitalize the areas. Clean and safe services are really the core trends that bring these districts back.”
When a downtown starts to go downhill, he said, deterioration feeds on itself. Things tend to get worse and worse. Trash piles up, buildings lapse into disrepair, the homeless population increases, businesses close or move to more attractive areas. Residents avoid a city’s core; tourists hesitate to return.
“But when you start to clean up an area, that snowballs too, it becomes cleaner and cleaner,” Stettinski said. That’s the main function of the Ambassador program, he said, to be the catalyst for the positive trend of rebalancing downtown.
Ambassadors intercept nuisance calls
When the team members respond to problems, police are able to focus on more important service calls. What are considered “nuisance calls” often are complaints about people who are blocking the entrances of businesses and refuse to leave, are walking in roadways or just acting strangely in public. In August, the Partnership logged 403 calls for assistance from business owners or members of the public, of those, 351 were considered “nuisance” related. In July, of the 421 calls, 382 were nuisance related.
“Those calls would have gone to RPD,” Stettinski said. “When officers aren’t running back and forth dealing with these nuisance things, they are more able to focus on real crime issues, which is what they are trained to do.”
He said the phrase “defund police” is an unfortunate choice of words to describe the problem of law enforcement agencies having to wear too many hats. Police departments, by default, often deal with situations best left to social workers, relationship counselors, mental health professionals and other specialists. “So many other services have been defunded and the police have had to pick up those duties,” he said. “Cities have saved money (by eliminating services), but now we wind up paying for that and we pay triple and quadruple.”
“I don’t believe in defunding police, I believe in smart-funding and right-funding police and other services. I think the Ambassadors have a place in that by taking the nuisance things off (law enforcements’) plates so the police can focus on the crime issues.”— Alex Stettinski, executive director, Downtown Reno Partnership.
Stettinski said the Ambassadors program is a good start in changing the complexion of downtown. The teams were making great progress, he said, “then COVID set us back. We’d done really well until March then everything fell flat for everybody. For downtown Reno, I’d say (the three-month quarantine period) was worse than ever.”
Teams patrolled during COVID-19 quarantine
The teams, considered “essential services,” never left the streets, but their duties adjusted to the crisis. They constantly sanitized high-touch surfaces, including railings and traffic signal buttons. They guided homeless people to the temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center and to emergency services. The Ambassadors picked up 20,000 pounds of trash in downtown between March and July.
Ambassadors worked midnight shifts to keep an eye on closed businesses and properties. There are more homeless people downtown now than before the start of the pandemic and many businesses have been devastated by the long closure. Yet, we’re on a road to recovery.
As businesses reopen, “what we see now is the start of a slow transition back toward being a much more balanced area… There’s no end in sight (to the pandemic). We’re all moving in the dark; we’re all doing the best we can,” Stettinski said.