Ambassador to the Homeless

BID Worker Reaches Out to Hill’s Street Population

Posted June 24, 2005 at 4:17pm

Promptly at 10:30 a.m., Michael Baxter enters the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District trailer in the Union Station parking garage, ready for another day as the BID’s homeless outreach/safety ambassador.

Baxter’s homeless outreach position is new to the two-year-old BID and was created to offer help for the area’s homeless population, as well as for Hill businesses that have had problems with the homeless.

Following a morning briefing with Capitol Hill BID Executive Director Patty Brosmer and the other safety ambassadors, Baxter pulls two bottles of water out of the refrigerator and puts them in his waistpack. As he adjusts the hat on his head and turns to walk out of the trailer, the bright yellow block letters reading “AMBASSADOR” are clear as day across his shoulders.

Baxter’s blue ambassador uniform threw some of the homeless in the Hill area for a loop, as he said a few of them took “offense at first, they think I’m the police and there to hassle them.” But Baxter is out there each day trying to help them and now, four months into his position, he said he knows the majority of the homeless within the Capitol Hill BID.

Ambassadors on the Hill

The Capitol Hill BID and its ambassadors “provide enhanced services from what the city provides,” mainly in the areas of hospitality and security, Baxter said.

Baxter was one of five safety ambassadors for the Capitol Hill BID before adding his homeless outreach duties. While he still goes through the same daily routine as the other ambassadors, Baxter said he now also stops “to talk to the homeless and get them to trust me.”

A few other responsibilities come with Baxter’s new title, such as monitoring and getting to know the homeless population within the BID, working with local homeless service organizations, responding to area business and police requests regarding the homeless and helping the police by keeping an eye out in an effort to deter crime and nuisance behavior.

All of the safety ambassadors go through a rigorous training program, including a minimum of 120 hours of customer service training and familiarizing themselves with the Hill. They all take tours of the buildings, such as the Capitol, Supreme Court and Library of Congress, so they know them first-hand and are able to give tourists the most accurate information.

Getting to Know You

Baxter said his new post as homeless outreach/safety ambassador has been more of a challenge than he expected.

“It’s like they don’t want to be bothered,” Baxter said. “It can be hard. But once you break ’em down, they get to know you.”

Baxter said his job is great “if you like being around people,” but there are some homeless on the Hill who haven’t yet warmed up to Baxter. As he’s out on his patrol route, Baxter makes a point to at least say hello to the homeless he sees, and he’ll stop to chat for a while with those who are comfortable talking with him.

“Everyone talks to me, but everyone has their days,” Baxter said. “They’re in their own little world — the only way to find out what’s going on is to talk to them.”

Baxter has learned a lot about the homeless in the past few months. He said most of them have families but “don’t want to bother them because of their habits.”

Many of the homeless are addicted to alcohol and drugs and that’s what they buy as soon as they have asked for enough money, Baxter said, adding that this cycle can lead to aggressive panhandling.

“Drugs are more expensive and harder to get,” Baxter said. “If they’re having a slow day [panhandling], they will go for alcohol.”

Some days are not slow, however, as Baxter said he knows some homeless who have made $200 in four or five hours. More often than not, it’s local residents who give money to the homeless rather than tourists because the locals see the same panhandlers every day.

When trying to help the homeless it’s best to let them dictate the conversation, but Baxter said he “slide[s] in” ways they can get help.

“I’ll say, ‘You getting tired of sleeping on the streets, George?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah,’ and I’ll say, ‘You don’t have to do this — they have this, this and this” available, Baxter said.

But once they’re living on the streets it becomes a lifestyle for them, and Baxter said many of them aren’t ready to give that up. He added that they see being homeless as “living on your own terms — you make your own rules,” and that’s a hard thing to steer them away from because “once you’re on the streets, it’s in you.”

Change for the Better

Brosmer said there have been fewer complaints about the homeless from businesses and community members since Baxter started his job.

“It’s a relief for businesses to have a number to call” when they’re having problems with the homeless, Brosmer said. “And the other [safety ambassadors] help him out, they’re all trained in that.”

Baxter said the area at Pennsylvania Avenue and Third Street Southeast is the “most improved area in terms of the homeless.” And while Baxter admitted that his job is more difficult than he originally thought, he goes out on his patrol routes every day as prepared as he can be.

“It’s hard to get them to go to a program — when they do come to me, I’ve got to be ready, got to have all the information they need on hand,” Baxter said. “If you’re not there and ready to take action, things can change the next day.”