SALT LAKE CITY — If you meet someone wearing a bright yellow shirt downtown, chances are he or she is a new ambassador for Salt Lake City.
They're stationed downtown to help make the city a more welcoming place for visitors and to address concerns raised by local business owners regarding homelessness and other issues facing the area.
The city will eventually deploy up to a dozen ambassadors in major pedestrian thoroughfares throughout the year, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said Thursday in announcing the pilot program. She said similar efforts have been successful in other large metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
The goal of the Downtown Ambassador Program is to create an even more welcoming and safe city center for residents and visitors, as well as providing additional outreach efforts for people experiencing homelessness, said Steve Hillard, president of Streets Plus, a national company that specializes in providing ambassador services in several major cities.
"We hire licensed social service workers to serve as ambassadors, so on the street, we engage those in need, we do case management, refer them to appropriate services and talk to them every day," he said.
"It's a very 'down to earth' networking (approach) to build relationships with (people in need) so that when the time comes and they're ready to make a move to get a meal, get clothing or get a job, in-patient services or housing, we're there to facilitate that process."
Hillard said the program is geared toward "inclusivity" where people in the community feel a part of trying to make the downtown area welcoming to everyone. He noted that in Chicago, the program drew thousands of referrals and helped get 57 people off the streets and into a better living environments in its first year of operation.
"We're talking jobs, in-patient services, treatment, housing and thousands of referrals for food, clothing and medical services," Hillard said. "We expect that we can do the same thing here in Salt Lake."
The new program is a part of a larger effort spearheaded by the Downtown Alliance, the city and Visit Salt Lake to address the issues facing the downtown area, said Matthew Rojas, communications director for Salt Lake City.
"It's really about making downtown really vibrant," he said. "If this pilot works, it could work in other neighborhoods in our city."
The initial phase of the program has been operational since Nov. 1. This month, the ambassadors will begin patrolling downtown in bright yellow shirts. The ambassadors will operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Rojas said, and will be equipped with radios with direct access to the local dispatch center in the event of an emergency.
"That's really going to bolster safety in the city and make everyone feel more comfortable and welcome," Rojas said. "We hear from businesses all the time that they would like extra eyes on the street and want this kind of service."
An ambassador program is a first for Salt Lake City and is modeled after similar programs in cities like Chicago. Launched six years ago in the Windy City, the program has improved the downtown Chicago experience significantly for residents and visitors, said Laura Jones, associate director of the Chicago Loop Alliance.
Seth Cole, manager of the Salt Lake City Ambassador Program, said the first goal of the program is to move homeless people into housing with compassion and set people up with the services that are available in the city.
"The second goal is to create an atmosphere of safety and hospitality," he said. "What we're (also) trying to do is transition people and treat them like human beings. We're not shuffling people around, we're trying to help them rehabilitate and get back into the 'housed' community."
While ambassadors will be tasked with providing safety, they are not security officers or police officers, said Downtown Alliance executive director Jason Mathis, adding that they carry no weapons and are simply there to help.
“Our ambassadors are already making a big difference, helping visitors and locals find their ways and feel even more welcome in downtown,” he said. “They are also working with panhandlers or homeless people who may need to access services.
"Downtown belongs to everyone, and this program is just one more way we are working to help everyone feel welcome in our urban center.”