Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Some thoughts on the DDA Ambassador Program and Homelessness

Today the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority's Operations Committee met to discuss a ~$900,000, 3 year contract with Kentucky based Block By Block to provide a Downtown Ambassador Program. According to folks who attended the DDA Operations Committee meeting today, the Ambassador Program would address issues like "panhandling, nuisances, cleanliness and wayfinding." The News' coverage of the Jan. 7, 2014 DDA meeting, Block by Block's proposal said they would "... charge $365,971 a year to provide 340 hours of weekly service, with ambassadors working in different shifts, sometimes walking, sometimes biking, sometimes riding a Segway." According to the proposal, Ambassadors would start at just $9.50 per hour and earn up to $10.50 per hour after the first year. A team leader would start at $12 per hour, and an operations manager would be salaried at $40,000 in the first year.

Doing a little math, we can see that $365,971 a year for 340 service hours per week comes down to a cost of $20.70 per hour of service from the Downtown Ambassador Program. This seems like a lot of money for mostly under paid employees. On top of that, the program seems to have no explicit goals other than improving "panhandling, nuisance issues, cleanliness and wayfinding." There has got to be a better way to deal with these issues than hiring an outside company, that doesn't pay its workers well to provide para-security services to Downtown Ann Arbor.

The issue of homelessness in Ann Arbor and specifically homeless camps came up at last nights's Ann Arbor city council meeting. While I know Ann Arbor and Salt Lake City are not perfectly analogous, I think it is worth noting that Salt Lake City adopted a program to provide some of its chronically homeless citizens with housing at a cost of approximately $11,000 per person per year. The city calculated that the Housing First program saved money through reduced costs on shelter, ER, ambulance and police services used by some chronically homeless. I know the causes of and solutions to homelessness are complicated. That said, it's worth noting that for the proposed amount Block by Block will charge per year to the DDA for its para-security force, approximately 30 homeless Ann Arborites could be housed.

I don't think the Ambassador Program is a good idea. If there is a great need to address issues like "panhandling, nuisances, cleanliness and wayfinding" in the downtown core, then we should come up with plans to address those issues and hopefully not contract that out to some outside company. Gentle readers, I'd be interested in knowing what your thoughts on the proposed Ambassador Program. I would especially welcome comments from folks who think the program is a good idea, or those who think there is a great need to address panhandling, nuisances, cleanliness and wayfinding in downtown. You can also share your thoughts on the program with the A2DDA here.


  1. Thank you and Mark for the coverage of this. It's atrocious that it's even being considered, let alone legitimately pursued. Yet another example of an overpriced, questionable, unnecessary public-private partnership. I put in comments with the DDA, and hopefully many others will do the same.

  2. Thank you so much, Ben, for writing about this. It's mind-boggling to me that this is even being considered, especially when DDA committee members wouldn't clearly state *what the specific problem was* that this program was trying to solve.

    Panhandling? Garbage? Wayfinding? If so, as someone who's in downtown daily, none of these seem like a huge problem to me. But, if there is research pointing out that any of those are problems, then let's look at it and try to find a solution that directly addresses it instead of thinking this service is the only way to address those things.

    If we could get a clearer "problem statement" from them, it seems it would be easier to try to come up with local solutions that might build on current organizations and efforts can't be considered/found.

    But at the public meeting, there were very few answers to that direct "What is the problem we're trying to solve?" question, when asked by both the public and by McWilliams.

  3. Thanks for your comments Sarah and Mariah.

    My reading between the lines of some comments left online makes me think that the DDA is responding to some pressure from the State Street Association. I know there are a lot of panhandlers (and the guy that plays Pearl Jam covers) on State St. So I can see where the business owners may be coming from. That said, I don't know what these ambassadors would be able to do about panhandling, which is not illegal.

    Maybe the money for the Ambassador Program could be used to hire a few MSWs to work with people who are homeless, at risk, etc. in downtown.