Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Fighting homelessness with diplomacy

Chicago Street Team Ambassadors Jonathan Boyden Dominique Mitchell visit with State Street panhandler Larry Dorsey. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times Media

Chicago Street Team Ambassadors Jonathan Boyden and Dominique Mitchell visit with State Street panhandler Larry Dorsey.

Story and photo by Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

In their lime green polo shirts, khaki pants and ball caps, the Street Team Ambassadors might look like they ought to be working the parking lots at Disney World.

But for the past year, these otherwise low-key ambassadors have tried to help Chicago put its best foot forward on State Street with a smile and helping hand for anybody who needs it—from tourists in need of directions to homeless panhandlers in need of, well, direction.

It’s the latter, of course, that caught my attention, and indeed, seems to be the primary impetus for the Ambassadors program.

Some business people apparently realized that instead of putting more security on State Street to keep homeless people under control they might do a better job by putting some friendly souls out there to work with them.

Friendly souls is exactly my take on Paul Guthrie, Edmund Garcia, Dominique Mitchell and Jonathan Boyden, the Ambassadors who took me along to walk their beat Tuesday afternoon.

As we walked and talked, they took photos for anybody that asked, offered restaurant suggestions to tourists and chatted up every panhandler they could find.

One of them was Larry Dorsey, 64, who said he has been on the streets two years and is currently “in the process of getting someplace,” which you could interpret any number of ways.

Dorsey, his cup of change at his feet, beamed at the sight of Mitchell.

“She’s my guardian angel, and you can quote me on that. She’s an inspiration to me,” Dorsey said of Mitchell, who helped him get a room in an SRO and is currently working on helping him find something to occupy his time instead of panhandling.

Mitchell says the daily interaction with the public is almost like a hobby for Dorsey.

“The only thing I wish that people could understand is if they were in the same position they would want somebody to reach out and help them,” Dorsey said. “[The Ambassadors] have been encouraging to me. They talk to me. They ask me how my day is going.”

The Ambassadors say it takes time to build a rapport with the homeless individuals they meet, and they do so gradually, getting to know each by name and then slowly convincing them to open up and accept help.

“Building relationships is the key,” Mitchell said.

Street Team Ambassadors is a program of Chicago Loop Alliance, what we used to call the State Street Commission. It’s funded through a special taxing district for property owners along State Street.

Working in two-person teams from 7 a.m to 11:30 p.m. seven days a week, the Ambassadors patrol State Street from Wacker to Congress with occasional forays onto the east-west streets in between.

The Ambassadors say they have helped 13 homeless people successfully transition off the street in the past year by helping them into substance abuse programs, housing and even jobs. They also help needy people find a free meal, obtain a discounted state ID card or a ride on the CTA.

The Ambassadors wanted me to talk Tuesday to a guy they helped go from the street to a job in a North Side restaurant where he has already won a promotion, but the fellow was busy working his shift, which is the kind of complication you like to hear.

I spoke instead with Tyrone King, 54, who doesn’t have a job yet but was placed in transitional housing in June with an assist from the Ambassadors and hopes to avoid another winter sleeping on the CTA.

King, homeless off and on since 2005 between trips to jail, said he checks in regularly with the Ambassadors for advice on how to take the next step toward getting “my own place.”

The Ambassadors say they have learned much in the past year about homeless individuals and panhandlers, not all of whom are homeless.

Some panhandlers work regular eight-hour shifts, almost like punching a clock, and the Ambassadors get a kick out of the ones who tell them: “I’d love to stay and talk, but I’ve got to get back to work.”

Guthrie said a main purpose of the Ambassadors is to cut down on aggressive panhandlers who get in the face of passers-by and demand money.

He says they try to first talk with anyone harassing pedestrians and explain the city’s panhandling regulations. Only if that doesn’t work will they call police, he said.

Still, there’s only so much they can do for mentally ill individuals who are not in a place to accept their help. That remains the city’s great unmet need.

As if on cue, a disheveled woman begins shouting about Mayor Rahm Emanuel, apparently having spotted his name on the side of a passing street sweeper.

The Ambassadors don’t recognize her. Somebody new to help.