Downtown Berkeley ambassadors help, monitor homeless

Carmen Francois, a downtown Berkeley Ambassador, talks to someone on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Carmen Francois was on a mission.

“We’re supposed to say hi to 60 people in 60 minutes,” she said.

Francois, one of Berkeley’s downtown “ambassadors,” didn’t have any trouble meeting the quota. She ducked into businesses and greeted employees by name, asking if they had any safety issues. She waved to police officers and directed tourists. She hugged homeless panhandlers, asking if they had gotten in touch with the Berkeley Mental Health Center counselor she had recommended the previous week. She pointed others toward the nearest public shower.

For the last three years, Francois has been walking up and down Shattuck Avenue interacting with those who spend their days sitting on blankets or leaning against walls, part of a larger effort to make downtown a more amenable area. But her stomping grounds have now become the center of a new debate: whether or not Berkeley should adopt a measure that makes it illegal to sit on the sidewalk in a commercial district between 7 am and 10 pm.

Mayor Tom Bates proposed an ordinance to ban sitting on sidewalks during those hours in mid-June and the City Council is expected to vote on July 10 to place it on the November ballot. Violators of the ban would get two warnings to stop sitting on the street and then would face a $50 fine.

Lance Gorée, the operation manager of the Downtown Berkeley Association, which has long pushed for a ban on sitting (the city currently has a ban on lying on the sidewalk), said the point is to target bad behavior, not homeless people. He said homeless people are not necessarily the main perpetrators of the kind of activity the ordinance is designed to prevent, and it is unlikely unobtrusive sidewalk dwellers will be punished.

“I think people are making a big mistake referring to this as a homeless issue,” Gorée said. “There’s just certain types of behavior that can’t be tolerated, especially in public areas when everybody in the city pays taxes for it. It’s done by a lot of different people. Adding the ‘sit’ to the ‘lie’— because the ‘lie’ is already there — just gives the police another tool to use,” he said.

“It’s not a homeless issue, it’s a behavioral issue,” said Francois, a team leader of the 16 ambassadors in neon green shirts now stationed downtown. “We have a lot of people who come in from Oakland because it’s illegal to panhandle there. A lot of them do really horrible stuff, like urinate and defecate right at doorways. We know they’re housed and they just come here to make extra money.”

James Armstrong may no longer be allowed to sit on Shattuck Avenue if a sit-lie ban is passed in November. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But critics of the proposed sit-lie ban say that whether it’s intended to or not, the ordinance would affect the dozens of homeless people who set up camp in the commercial district.

“You’re just going to funnel people into the judicial system,” said Ed Kaz, a homeless man who graduated from Berkeley High School in 1976 and has lived on and off in the city since. “They should be focusing their energy and money on more shelters and services instead of policing things.” He said the three homeless shelters in the city are not sufficient.

Francois said that the recent closure of the McGee Avenue youth shelter, whose harm-reduction philosophy and later curfew was appealing to many adolescents, displaced a large population of kids. But she said many of the homeless people she works with choose not to use the services that remain in the city.

“Berkeley has a lot to offer if you utilize it,” she said. “The homeless can get off the streets, but they want to live out here. They’ve heard that Berkeley is homeless-friendly, that you can come here, hang out in People’s Park, and get high. A lot of kids come here just for that purpose. We’re not against the homeless — they all talk to us. Some of those kids are like my kids. But if they want to sit in front of a business to get money, if they think it’s okay to block the entrance, you can’t do that.”

Gorée said it is this type of problematic behavior that would be targeted under a sit-lie ban, and not inconspicuous sidewalk dwelling. “We’re not talking about ticketing somebody for sitting down. I’m sure, because I’ve talked to police,” he said.

The sitting proposal comes on the heels of the January launch of a $1.2 million campaign to revitalize downtown Berkeley. The “Big Splash” project, part one of a five-year plan, involved expanding the neon-clad ambassador team from five to 16. (Francois was one of the original ambassadors.) Although the ambassadors are all locally based, the program is overseen by the Kentucky firm Block by Block, which has organized similar clean-ups in several cities.

There are cleaning ambassadors and hospitality ambassadors, whose job is to “greet people, give directions, and help businesses with the problems they encounter,” Francois said. “Say there’s someone drunk in a business. Call the police and it might take them a long time to get there. We come right away and usually know the person, so we’re a liaison between the business and the police. No one goes to jail and the problem is dealt with.”

Francois said that because most of the downtown homeless recognize her, they are more likely to respond to her direction than a police officer’s.

“They’re great liaisons,” said Julia Washburn, the manager at Crossroads Trading Company. “They come in here every day and give you an update on if there’s any crime in the area. They know all the local people.”

There are cleaning ambassadors and hospitality ambassadors, but all employees are trained in both fields. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Romi Manchanda recalled Francois chasing after a man who stole from the AT&T Parrot store he manages. “If every city had people like them, the crime would be much lower,” he said.

Ambassadors are trained by mental health and homeless outreach services, and are given a quota of four beds to fill each night at city shelters. According to Gorée, ambassadors made 111 referrals to shelters and other social services between April and the first week of June. Though referrals were not previously recorded, Gorée said he is certain the number increased significantly with the hiring of additional ambassadors. Francois is frequently approached by homeless people asking for such assistance, and has written job references for homeless teenagers.

But James Armstrong, a writer who refers to himself as “the world’s busiest homeless man,” said Francois is an anomaly. While she truly cares about people, “the rest are pushing an agenda,” he said.

According to Armstrong, the sit-lie ban would be just another move in a series of “baby steps to the right.” He said that before they decided as a group to relocate to a park, a group of homeless teenagers living on the corner of Shattuck and Kittredge were constantly told to move by the ambassadors and others. He said the ambassadors violated the kids’ civil rights.

“You may not like what you see, and you many not feel good about it…you may fear for your safety (unwarranted, in my opinion), but that is not a crime they are perpetrating upon you,” Armstrong wrote on his Facebook page. “That is you having to deal with your own issues and not project them outwardly at these kids who are not breaking any existing Berkeley city law or ordinance.”

Kaz thinks that the ambassadors often overstep their bounds. “They should hand out fliers saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t sit here,’” because they’re consistently admonishing people, he said. “It’s a great concept but it’s mismanaged. Somewhere down the line it fell through the cracks. They’re just out here to harass homeless people.”

Other homeless people appreciate the ambassadors’ stepped-up involvement. “If I had a business I wouldn’t want a bunch of people sitting in front of my store, some of them intoxicated,” said a man who has been selling Street Spirit newspapers in the city for seven years and asked to be referred to as J.B. “If they’re in the way of regular pedestrians it becomes a problem.”

“We’re hospitality ambassadors,” Francois said. “I’m here to make you feel welcome and safe — that’s what my job is. I try to do everything I can to help the homeless. But they’ve got to want it. And if you’re aggressive and make people uncomfortable, that’s not okay. I’ll refer them to the police.”

Sit-lie ordinance progresses towards November ballot [06.13.12]
Proposed sidewalk sitting ban prompts debate, protest [06.12.12]
Mayor seeks to put sit-lie ordinance on November ballot [06.01.12]
Police step up patrols on Telegraph to keep sidewalks clear [05.01.12]
Newly cleaned up downtown hopes to attract more retail [04.04.12]

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  • The Sharkey

    Is this the thread you’re referring to?

    The comments are a bit vague, and I think other posters have invented some key details to try to fill in the gaps.

  • bgal4

     Exactly, this information add to my first post.

  • Anonymous

     Oh stop the melodrama, there are no jackbooted thugs here.  You’re a shameless fraud that screams “help! help! I’m being oppressed!” whenever anyone points it out.

  • Anonymous

     Something like this is probably a best case scenario (with the lawsuits from the usual bottomfeeders).  If only there was a way to get our “urban youth” from slightly south and west of downtown interested in our new occupiers they might actually contribute something to society for once by clearing them out.

  • Bruce Love

    Speaking of anonymous hate speech and incitements to violence on Berkeleyside, would anyone like to take a crack at unpacking this from our illustrious “Anonymous”?

    If only there was a way to get our “urban youth” from slightly south and west of downtown interested in our new occupiers they might actually contribute something to society for once by clearing them out.

  • anon_grad_student

     I’d be curious what the University of Michigan pays, since they’re a public – and have similar funding issues. They’re also a larger university (~20% larger student body, according to Wikipedia). Yale is an entirely different kettle of fish; they’re a private with fairly serious money (e.g., they have an endowment that’s survived the recession respectably well), which a historically decent relationship with New Haven (as I recall).

    Unless you want to overturn the standard non-profit tax exemption for all higher education institutions, I can’t see the tax issue ever being resolved. In fact, as far as I can tell, this would be a complete disaster for the institutions concerned, since this isn’t exactly a great time to get funding from the state or from granting agencies – and donors aren’t [probably] keen on having their donations used for taxes.

    Trying to get the UC to give Berkeley more voluntary money isn’t a bad idea – but I’m wondering how everyone involved could manage to come to an equitable solution, realizing that no one involved has remotely unlimited funds.

  • I’ll say it again:

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of yours, Bruce, but I think we can at least see eye-to-eye on this one.  

  • Anonymous

     You’re right, they probably just need more hugs. I don’t see any hate speech or incitements to violence, at none were intended.  “Urban youth” is the PC term used in the media for the largely black groups for teen to twenty-somethings that congregate in large groups in downtown areas and other public places and raise hell; it’s not my term.  By “clearing out” I meant that they could intimidate the occupiers in the same way they’ve intimidated the citizens from much of our city.  If you read more into it than that it’s all you.

  • Bruce Love

     I described Anonymous’ earlier comment as hate speech and incitement to violence.

    Anonymous has apparently defended(?) itself although, to me, this “defense” reads like a confession:

    You’re right, they probably just need more hugs. I don’t see any hate speech or incitements to violence, at none were intended.  “Urban youth” is the PC term used in the media for the largely black groups for teen to twenty-somethings that congregate in large groups in downtown areas and other public places and raise hell; it’s not my term.  By “clearing out” I meant that they could intimidate the occupiers in the same way they’ve intimidated the citizens from much of our city.  If you read more into it than that it’s all you.

    No, Anonymous, I think you nicely summed up why I objected to your comment.

  • Anonymous

     I still fail to see how anything I wrote is hate speech, incites violence, or makes claims that are objectively false.  Thanks for the support “Bruce”!

  • The Sharkey

    It sometimes seems like Bruce refers to any disagreement with him (or the groups he champions) as hate speech and personal attacks.

  • Anonymous — One of Two

    Thanks, Sharkey.  That is the comment I had in mind from TL:

    In my case, in the view of myself and my attorney, an unlawful OMI was attempted against me. Would have resulted in homelessness for me and mine. We reached what must have been a somewhat equitable settlement (too high by their standards, too low by mine — but in any event workable). As a bonus for the landlord, no eviction was thus necessary – freeing them from the concerns that you describe as coming back to haunt.

  • Anonymous — One of Two

    Breaking news relevant to this discussion?  I assume the “animal” the officer was referring to was the pit bull.

    Berkeley man keeps officers at bay with pit bull
    By Doug Oakley Oakland
    Posted:   07/03/2012 12:38:03 PM PDT

    A Berkeley man with a history of arrests for fighting, trespassing and sleeping in parks held police at bay with a pit bull dog in a doorway for more than an hour Monday afternoon until two police negotiators talked him into giving up peacefully, police said.Police arrested 37-year-old Austin White on charges of trespassing, threatening a police officer and illegal lodging in a public place, said police spokeswoman Jenn Coats.”Officers didn’t want to hurt the animal, so we had two negotiators on duty who were able to speak to him and take him into custody peacefully,” Coats said.Coats said police responded to a call of White spray painting BART property in the 2100 Shattuck Avenue Monday afternoon. When police saw him walking in the area a short time later they attempted to arrest him, but he fled and backed into a doorway and used his pit bull to keep officers away.Coats said White has been “problematic” in downtown Berkeley and at People’s Park for at least a year.”He’s been the subject of multiple calls for service with us,” Coats said. “This week it’s been trespassing and disturbing the peace. In the past it’s also been trespassing fights and vandalism.”

  • Mbfarrel

    I’m amazed at so many anti sit/lie people constantly refer to laws on the books against various forms of bad behavior. If the Police would just enforce those laws, everything would be just fine according to them.

    Bit of a problem though – those laws are either misdemeanors or infractions. The offense must have occurred in the officer’s presence for him to perform an arrest or issue a citation. If no policeman is there and the illegal behavior occurred in your presence you may call the police and they will assist you in making a “Citizen’s Arrest.”

    You will have to make a complaint, and the officer can then take the offender into custody or issue a citation.
    In the case of a citation, police officers, perhaps being needed elsewhere, will have to then go and leave you standing there with your new best friend.

    Try it; it’s exciting!

  • The Sharkey

    This guy is a real loon, and is costing the City of Berkeley a lot of money.

    I wonder if he’s the same nut-job that “Berkeley Resident” Was talking about yesterday.

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t think referring to previous posts you’ve made on a publicly-accessible news website counts as “cyber stalking.”

    Pointing out your potential bias in a discussion where you have been attacking others for bias seems germane to the discussion.

  • Haselstein

    We”ve been there with the Downtown Plan,  in which the university contributes $1 million a year to the city. I “think” U of M contributes on the order of $8 million a year, but I could be wrong. I do hear what you’re saying about research, but doesn’t it strike you as wrong for BP to be getting untaxed property? And what kind of research, in areas in and by residences? In addition, we have a big issue with zoning changes in West Berkeley, which will definitely challenge the existing businesses. I ask you to take a look at the traffic in Berkeley and compare it to say, Oakland, which is a far larger city. Berkeley has far more traffic on its narrow streets. The town-gown conflict we have in Berkeley is far less at other UC campuses, I think, because the campuses are not right in town. 

  • Berkeleyborn234

    And with all the dithering by the city and extensive berkeleyside comments, folks are going to shop at Bay Street in Emeryville or 4th Street in Berkeley. These areas, especially Emeryville have cheap parking, limited to no aggressive pan handlers, and a range of moderate to higher end stores. The opposite is becoming true for downtown Berkeley and Telegraph- aggressive panhandlers, terrible and expensive parking, and several mid to low end retail stores who’s only salvation is their proximity to good restaurants and campus. Being a Berkeley Native, it’s depressing that after decades, Berkeley cannot capitalize on the great location of downtown and Telegraph, including access to BART and being surrounded by many affluent households and students. Emeryville was an industrial wasteland years ago, now it is a magnate for peoples money and time…Berkeley could learn a lot from its reborn neighbor to the south…

  • Bruce Love

    I’m glad you bring this up “The Sharkey” because I have some legal notice to give you:


    I don’t think referring to previous posts you’ve made on a publicly-accessible news website counts as “cyber stalking.”

    Obsessively, inaccurately, repeatedly, and off-topic dogging me with such “references”, especially when the off topic focus is upon my family life,  is a threat I first encountered from you, Sharkey and which you now seem to encourage in others.   It is one thing to have an honest and accountable discussion, another to harass, falsely defame, intimidate, and so forth, especially from behind a veil of anonymity.

    I insist  that you and others stop.   I alert you collectively and individually  that I think I have a reasonable concern for my safety and security as a result of your anonymous conduct.   Anonymous and PragmaticProgressive, I include you in this number, as well as some other anonymous commentators.

  • Greg

    How does the proposed Sit/Lie ordinance differ?

    The PDF for the ‘Action Calender’ item states the following:

    “After one warning the first violation would be an infraction.  Subsequent violations would be misdemeanors.” 

    Did I miss something here?  Is there additional information to contradict this?

    To avoid confusion, those are earnest questions.

  • Greg

    Sorry about the format.  I explicitly used double quotes then foolishly wrapped it in the quote markup.

  • Gimpytroll

    Its because chain stores are the devil and they destroy local businesses etc.  unless its another Walgreens.

  • Anonymous — One of Two

    Surey, you jest?  Above, I quoted you verbatim…

  • Bruce Love


    Surey, you jest?  Above, I quoted you verbatim…

    No, I am not joking.

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t think I’ve said anything inaccurate about you in this discussion, nor falsely defamed you in any way. You’ve claimed that, a couple times, which is why I’ve provided links to your comments for others so that they can see what I’m basing my statements on and make up their own minds.

    I’m not sure what actions you seem to think I’m encouraging in this discussion. Can you link to a comment or thread here that illustrates what you’re saying?

  • Bruce Love

    After I gave legal notice to Sharkey he replied:


    Can you link to a comment or thread here that illustrates what you’re saying?

    You may non-anonymously ask me in an email message.

    In continuing here, in such manner as you are, I regard you as continuing the conduct to which I have objected.

  • Mazada

    Time to get back on the “meds”?

  • This comment thread has been veering off topic. We’re closing it to new comments.