San Francisco’s Community Ambassadors Program uses a human touch in working with homeless population

KMUW | By Andrew Lopez

As Wichita continues to figure out how to best work with its homeless population, San Francisco uses a non-law enforcement program to build trust and visibility in its neighborhoods.

SAN FRANCISCO – The gentrification of San Francisco has become an unavoidable truth in most of its neighborhoods.

Community Ambassador Halona St. John holds a package of Narcan in San Francisco.

But one small enclave of the city remains relatively untouched by the influx of high rises and tech offices: The Tenderloin.

The neighborhood, though, has a bad reputation. Folks usually associate open-air drug markets and violent crime with the area, known locally as the TL.

And according to the city’s annual count on people experiencing homelessness, there are more unhoused San Franciscans in those 50 square blocks than anywhere else in the city. In this vulnerable community, it’s common to see people going through a variety of mental health crises. Because of that, the city has pushed to improve social and mental health support systems.

That includes the San Francisco Community Ambassadors Program, which, for the last decade, has worked to make an impact in the area through human-to-human outreach, persistence and a whole lot of compassion.

Building trust

Halona St. John is a team lead with the Community Ambassadors. We shadowed her for a shift, walking through the Tenderloin on a rainy weekday morning.

St. John’s main task is to build relationships with people in the neighborhood. She might help de-escalate an argument or point people to city-based food or housing resources. She said the idea is to build trust.

“We’re out here all the time,” St. John said. “Through the pandemic, through everything. We make sure to go out of our way to help people, you know?”

The program was founded by the city in the Bayview and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods in 2010 with the idea that community safety can come in many forms.

The organization started with about 10 ambassadors shared between two neighborhoods. Today, the program employs more than 50 ambassadors in roughly a dozen San Francisco communities with a similar goal in mind: community engagement to build trust, calm tensions and prevent violence.

The program tries to employ people from their own neighborhoods and many of them are fluent in their community’s language: Cantonese speakers work in Chinatown and Spanish-speaking Mission natives are in the Mission District.

The program operates in conjunction with the city’s Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. Approximately $3 million of the department’s yearly allocation of $11 million directly funds the Community Ambassadors Program.

The program is led by David McKinley. He describes the organization as a two-pronged effort: One element of the program is that it’s a non-law enforcement, community safety approach to neighborhoods. But it’s also an active job training program for people like St. John.

St. John said she was homeless for eight years before finding secure housing in the Tenderloin. “I was … basically one of the ones that are out here needing the resources and needed the help,” she said. “But now I’ve changed my life around, and now I’m helping others.”

According to McKinley, between 50% and 70% of the interactions with community members in the Tenderloin are with people with high mental health needs or who are experiencing trauma.

Community Ambassadors are equipped with a long list of training including: violence prevention, homelessness and mental illness sensitivity, and trauma-informed de-escalation practices. Teams are also ready to administer CPR and first aid if needed.

St. John hands out flyers with the addresses of nearby clinics and food pantries. She carries boxes of Narcan to help people who are at risk of overdosing.

Their work is to be seen so that community members know that they’re available in times of crisis — or sometimes if someone just needs a shoulder to lean on.

Brian Campbell sits with his dog, Buddy, during a break from the rain in San Francisco.

Qun Gu, a Community Ambassador for almost four years, often works the same route as St. John. She helped a blind gentleman trying to get to a food pantry on Golden Gate Avenue and offered to support him through the crosswalk.

Gu is in her late 50s and said talking to people is her favorite part of her job.

“Some of the homeless people isolate themselves,” Gu said. “Nobody talks to them. So they have anxiety sometimes.

“When you talk to people, they speak up and some people get emotional. This morning I saw a lady and I said, ‘Hi, how are you? How’s it going today?’ She was crying. So I just gave her a hug.”

Gu explained that after making that small connection with the woman, she was able to convince her to visit a homeless resource center nearby.

Both Gu and St. John say that because the Community Ambassadors Program doesn’t distribute food, clothing or tents, connecting to people can be difficult.“They’ll want to engage with you more if you have something to offer them that’s tangible,” St. John said. “If I had, like some socks or something to give them, or if we had some water to give them because a lot of times they’ll be thirsty.”

Community Ambassador Qun Gu shares information sheets with a person in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco.

St. John also said the lack of secure housing adds another level of complexity to those who are trying to maintain their mental health, and it can slow the progress for a lot of people living on the streets.

“They’re constantly pushing people off the street,” St. John said. “There’s no place for anybody to rest. They have nowhere to go.

“People are constantly telling them they cannot sit here. They cannot lay here. They can’t be here.”

St. John said she sees people going through serious mental health crises daily. But still, she clocks in every morning for the sake of her own mental health.

“I feel like having a job keeps me stable, keeps you busy,” St. John said. “And I’m also out here helping others that are in the same predicament I was in. So I can help others that are struggling also.”

She said she sometimes runs into familiar faces in the Tenderloin. And she likes to think that they draw hope from the change she’s made.

“They’re like, ‘Wow, I’m proud of you. Look at you.’ And they’re surprised to see me still going at it.”

Andrew Lopez is a former Korva Coleman Diversity intern at KMUW and a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley. He produced this story for the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community groups.

Photographer Isaac Ceja also a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW