Melvin Eledge and his Ambassadors lead the way through Grand Rapids
At first glance, the Grand Rapids Safety Ambassadors resemble a group of paid vigilantes. On foot, bikes, and Segways, these uniformed do-gooders comb the city for people in need of help. Their headquarters are nestled in the belly of a downtown parking garage, like an urban Batcave. They even work in tandem with local police and building security.
However, the similarities end there. The ambassadors do occupy the gray area between what the average citizen will do and where the police will step in. But the safety ambassador program is not meant to replace police, operations manager Melvin Eledge emphatically explains.
"We're not out there looking for people breaking the law. We never have any ambition towards enforcement,” Eledge said. “We're out there for hospitality and customer service, and we include a safety and observation function.
"I answered an ad for the job on Craigslist
, because it sounded almost too cool to be true. You do a lot of walking around, and you're involved in making Grand Rapids a better city,” he said. It's an opportunity to regularly give back and serve the community at large.”
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
(DGRI) launched the program last September to provide services to visitors and residents of the downtown area.
DGRI hired contract company Block by Block
to train the ambassadors, using funds from the Downtown Development Authority
's non-tax revenue. Block by Block, based in Louisville, Ky., has jumpstarted successful safety ambassador programs in 65 cities to date.
Seven days a week, the ambassadors canvas the streets in shifts. Each ambassador concentrates on a particular district, such as Heartside
, Monroe Center, or the Ionia area.
All ambassadors have the same job description, but their focus differs based on their district, or any big events happening that day. As Eledge puts it, the ambassadors keep their fingers on the pulse of Grand Rapids and adapt to the city's needs.
"Recently we had Irish on Ionia
, so we anticipated a lot of people coming downtown, getting intoxicated. So our expectations for a shift like that are different from a Monday morning," Eledge said.
On the hospitality end of the program, ambassadors give directions and recommendations to visitors. They provide "motors assists" in the form of jumping cars, changing tires, or calling a locksmith. They carry packages for people who seem to be struggling.
"We want people to come away saying, 'When I visited this city, people held doors for me, or carried an umbrella, or led me right to this coffee shop.’ That's really what we're driving for,” Eledge said.
While opposition to the program
has criticized the expense ($300,000 a year) and the supposed redundancy when police are already available and downtown is hailed as "the safest neighborhood in Grand Rapids," the program may make more sense when viewed through the eyes of a traveler.
For those tourists already comfortable with the setting of a medium-sized city, the ambassadors serve as mobile visitor centers, providing directions and recommendations to the best of what Grand Rapids has to offer. For the tourists not
comfortable with the size of our city, whether they hail from towns with a population smaller than your high school class, or any other reason, the ambassadors provide all that plus a friendly face, and a reassuring presence.
"We have a standing appointment on Mondays and Wednesdays at Kendall College of Art and Design
where we escort two women three or four blocks at night,” Eledge said. “They're from a small town and just moved to Grand Rapids. The 'big city' is a different place for them.”
Another distinction between the ambassadors and police is their outreach work. The ambassador who serves the Division and Heartside district interacts consistently with local ministries like Dégagé
, God's Kitchen, and Guiding Light
. His primary focus is meeting people on the street who are homeless or panhandling, working with them to assess their needs, and attempting to link them to relevant services.
One example they are most proud of is Isaac. In addition to being homeless, he had recently been released from juvenile detention, and was possibly suffering from mental illness. Eledge said that by the time they encountered him, Isaac had already been victimized multiple times. Twice, people had stolen all of his belongings, and he was “shaken down” for money.
Although it took a few weeks, the ambassadors were eventually able to connect him with resources, and Isaac managed to secure housing. According to Eledge, things sound like they are looking up.
"In fact, one of the contacts we set him up with sees Isaac every so often, and says he's doing really well and he's still in the housing. That's just one of the successes we know about; I'm sure there's many more,” Eledge said. "A lot of times we connect people with resources and never see them again. It's probably a good sign that we don't see them on the street anymore.”
On the “observing” end of the program, ambassadors serve as eyes and ears for the Grand Rapids Police Department
. They alert police to any suspicious activity, and collect data on their rounds. Eledge compiles this data into readable, usable reports quantifying what the ambassadors do, and how they are making an impact in Grand Rapids.
One of the things Eledge looks forward to the most is this year's Art Prize, since his team now has a year under their belts. He calls it their "big finale of the year."
"We're always looking to improve what we do. We try to solicit feedback as much as we can through DGRI's Facebook page. I welcome phone calls, emails; any type of feedback is great," Eledge said.
The ambassadors seek to reach all aspects of the districts they serve, so their program will grow and change with their understanding of the city's needs. If you have any feedback, or if you're ever in a bind and need a tire changed, a package carried, or a friendly smile, you don't need to send up a Batsignal. Just call (616) 250.8275, or send a message to their Facebook page
Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelancer for UIX Grand Rapids.