If you venture downtown this spring, you might see folks in yellow shirts walking in pairs, like two purposeful bumblebees sans the black stripes. The shirts have a logo and the words "Ask Me!" These are your new Downtown Ambassadors, paid for by the Downtown Alliance, Salt Lake City and Visit Salt Lake. Years ago, members of the Chamber of Commerce would go out monthly in white coats, welcome people to town and invite them to meetings. These guys were not paid, whereas the new ambassadors are getting a wage. This program is a little different.
According to the Downtown Alliance website, these ambassadors have three goals: 1. Answer questions from visitors and find out where they are from; 2. Be vigilant in busier parts of downtown; 3. "Act as the eyes and ears for the homeless population," and inform them about how to take advantage of local services.
Mind you, they're not cops, but in a way are acting like cops. They'll watch out for crime and particularly watch the homeless in specific locations downtown. They don't have guns or tasers, just phones to call 911 or service providers.
The need for extra sets of eyeballs on the street is due mostly to a cry from local businesses finding that the Salt Lake City police are too damned busy busting drug dealers around the shelter and aren't available to roust panhandlers from in front of Temple Square or City Creek 20 times a day. These yellow ambassadors will interface with the homeless and panhandlers and get to know them. They won't be afraid to sit down next to them and talk about why they are there, and offer them services to hopefully get them help.
The program is based on a similar one that the Chicago Loop Alliance created for its downtown area. They contracted with private entity Streetsplus to walk their downtown areas and get cozy with the people who work, visit and live there. Streetplus has been working in New York City for more than 25 years, too, and provides cleaning, safety and hospitality services to 60 downtown areas around the United States. By this summer, you might see up to a dozen Streetplus pairs in the core blocks of downtown, around our convention center and tourist sites. They get rave reviews for their work, so let's give them a chance in our capital city for a year and measure the results.