‘Ambassadors’ Are Here to Help

Program Brings Extra Services To Capitol Hill

Posted July 8, 2003 at 1:52pm

Need a quick pair of replacement slacks? Directions to the Dirksen Senate Office Building? A Greek sandwich? An escort through a scary neighborhood? Just ask Robert Allen — it’s his job to help.

Allen is one of four “security ambassadors” recently hired by the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District. The group provides supplemental city services such as business information, directions, dealing with homeless issues and first aid. The program, sought by local residents since 1990, also includes a nine-member team of “clean ambassadors,” who predominately remove litter, clean graffiti, prune trees and shovel snow as necessary.

“It’s great, it’s totally cool!” said Patrick Burritt, who works at Firehook Bakery on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. “It’s like someone keeping an eye out on the streets.”

The ambassadors, who hit the streets about a month ago, will also serve as extra eyes and ears to the police and D.C. departments of Public Works and Transportation.

Clad in a royal blue-collared shirt and black shorts, with a one-strap backpack slung around his right shoulder, Allen confidently glides east on Pennsylvania Avenue, toward Eastern Market. He spouts off interesting facts about each business he passes.

“People come here for a quick grocery store run,” the 23-year-old said, pointing to Rolands of Capitol Hill Grocery Store. “This is where my mother works,” Allen said while passing Ritz Camera. “Here’s the best cleaners,” he said of Lustre Cleaners.

As he passes the Coldwell Banker office he spots a friend through the window — Don Denton, the branch vice president.

As they shake hands with a half-embrace, Denton said with a huge smile, “These guys are fabulous. The difference is night and day.”

“He helps out with our program,” Allen said with a nod in Denton’s direction.

By taxing themselves, Denton and other local business owners have raised about a half-million dollars to fund the program, which closely resembles business agreements in Georgetown, the Golden Triangle and downtown D.C.

Making a Difference

Closing in on Eastern Market, Allen spots Fairy Godmother Children’s Books & Toys. He is reminded of his own favorite book, “Fish,” which is about a down-on-her-luck woman who moved from Delaware to Los Angeles and fought hardships to achieve a supervisory position.

“She came in and made a difference,” the Washington native said about the book’s protagonist.

After losing his father at age 11, the Forestville, Md., resident said he understands struggle. But Allen said his tight-knit family, including his two brothers and his sister, relied on one another to make it through the tough times while growing up in Southeast Washington.

“Our family sticks together in all situations,” he said. “That’s the way a family should be.”

A father himself, Allen said it is important for the 8-month-old Robert Allen III to grow up “in a positive atmosphere.”

His new job should help. Trained for two weeks in public safety, customer service, conflict resolution and CPR, Allen said the ambassadors also got a crash course in “coming to work with a positive attitude.”

Allen clearly took the lesson to heart, adding, “We really want to go seven days a week.” On the current schedule, the security ambassadors work from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The clean ambassadors are scheduled from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

The ambassadors split up to simultaneously walk and bike four different routes in the Hill BID district, which is made up of 81 blocks. It encompasses the area between South Capitol and Fifth streets and between Massachusetts Avenue Northeast and E Street Southeast. It includes businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast from the Capitol to 15th Street, as well as those on Seventh, Eighth, 11th and 12th streets Southeast. The district also includes Union Station, Station Place and Eastern Market.

Helping the Homeless

As he walks past a homeless person on Pennsylvania Avenue, heading back toward the Capitol, Allen notes, as he was instructed, that the man can stay because he is not within 15 feet of a bus stop or 10 feet of an ATM. The man, slouching on the ground, nods and says, “Hey, how you doing?” Allen nods back.

“All the homeless dudes, they know me,” he said. “Certain people look down on the homeless. But I don’t — they’re people too.”

As part of their homeless outreach training, Allen said he frequently helps the less fortunate find places to eat and sends them to organizations like Strive D.C., the nonprofit, three-week job readiness and placement program through which Allen found his job with the Capitol Hill BID. Two of the other security ambassadors are Strive D.C. graduates as well.

The clean ambassadors are part of the Ready, Willing & Able program that employs men who are formerly homeless substance abusers. They are thus able to become productive citizens with job training, social support services and paid employment experience.

“They’ve been with us two months and none of them have missed a day,” praised BID Executive Director Patty Brosmer. “They’re fantastic, absolutely amazing.”

Allen offered similar approval of his director and the program. “It’s real cool,” he said, calling Brosmer “more like a mother figure.”

Extra Eyes and Ears

In his short tenure as an ambassador, Allen said he has already seen and done amazing things.

His team witnessed a man “snatch a lady’s bag.” They called police to the scene, caught the perpetrator and “got him in handcuffs.” They’ve also arrived first to the scene of numerous accidents.

“Most accidents we get there faster than police,” the Washington Wizards fan said. “We see more of everything. We deal with everybody. We deal with vendors.”

Security ambassadors, armed with maps and their comrades’ brainpower via radio, have also provided many directions and much advice about local businesses.

As he walks back to BID’s home base at Union Station after covering what he estimates to be eight miles a day, Allen looks forward to his mother’s home-cooked meal.

When he reflects back on the day, the week and the job, he smiles.

“This is one of the best jobs a man can have,” Allen said.