New Ambassador Program Promises Smiles. Unless You’re Homeless!

Ambassadors program logo

Don’t ya love the fancy logo?

“When visitors come to Beverly Hills, they expect to be greeted by a friendly face,” said Beverly Hills in late July when announcing our new ‘ambassadors’ program. “Beverly Hills is known world-wide as a destination synonymous with luxury and impeccable service,” we said, and undoubtedly that’s true for Rodeo Drive shoppers and hotel guests alike. For them the smiles do abound. But seem a bit disheveled or chat up a passerby on the sidewalk unprovoked, and one of our twelve new ambassadors may well roll out the frown, as if to say, Don’t overstay the welcome.

The half-million dollars Beverly Hills will spend this year for the new ‘Ambassador’ program is intended to “enhance the high quality of life for which the City is renowned,” according to the program’s webpage. The program’s ‘ambassadors,’ “serving residents, merchants and visitors,” as they do, “are instantly recognizable in their green shirts, black pants and black hats.” This welcome wagon of sorts will greet visitors in the central business district for 22 out of 24 hours every day. Nothing but nothing goes near 24 in Beverly Hills. So who is this program targeting exactly? Not tourists and shoppers.

Positive change not spare change flyerFramed as a “safety and hospitality” initiative, this program is presented as an extension of our ‘Positive Change, Not Spare Change’ program, which discourages panhandling by cautioning people not to give money to panhandlers, which may include homeless individuals.

Like that other program, the ‘ambassador’s program offers a social services twist too. “Ambassadors will work in partnership with the City’s Human Services department, police and other departments to address aggressive panhandling and connect individuals with social service needs to the City’s Changing Lives and Sharing Places (CLASP) Homeless Outreach Team,” the program announcement says. (All of the city’s homeless services are outsourced to non-city organizations, by the way.)

AmbassadorsBut unlike social services, the ‘ambassadors’ program is more about enforcement. It is run by an organization called Block by Block, which is a subsidiary of an industrial hospitality conglomerate (SMS Holdings). It puts “teams of great personalities selected and trained to meet your city’s specific needs.” The ambassadors are the “eyes and ears” of law enforcement, the company says.

In fact our neighbor West Hollywood also contracts Block by Block for CBD security. As WeHo stated in a 2012 enumeration of public safety accomplishments: “The purpose of the Security Ambassadors is to reduce actual crime and unwanted behavior as well as provide a positive perception of safety.” The “Security Ambassadors,” it said, “act as an extra set of eyes and ears for the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department.”

Block by Block: safety with a smile!As Block by Block likes to point out, these ambassadors are not your father’s cops. They work with smiles!

Based on the West Hollywood and Santa Monica experience with Block by Block ambassadors, our own Human Relations Commission (which oversees homelessness-related social services contracting) approved the Block by Block engagement back in February as an extension of the ‘Positive Change’ program.  Human Relations agenda excerpt Feb 2015

Make no mistake, though. Though appended to the ‘Positive Change’ program, Block by Block patrol comes not recommended by social services professionals but rather was engaged at the behest of the business community.

Panhandling: A Threat to Public Order?

Is panhandling (or the homelessness for that matter) really that much of a threat to public order in Beverly Hills that we need 22/7 private security to address it? To hear the city tell it, yes. “Aggressive panhandling” is a problem that’s getting worse, City Hall says, perhaps coincident with an overall increase in homelessness – up 17% in just two years according to a press release in June. But while that figure may apply across the greater Westside,  the same Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count showed that homelessness in City of Beverly Hills is largely unchanged from two years ago.

If there was a significant threat to public order, we’d probably already have heard about it. And we haven’t. (For what it’s worth, in our own experience, panhandlers have been entirely, well, professional.) So we looked back at a year of BHPD advisories and press releases and saw no mention of a crime that was even remotely connected with someone from the homelessness community. And we saw no incidents of reported “aggressive panhandling.”

But if you listen closely to business sector representatives in the city meetings that precipitated the inauguration of this half-million dollar per year program, you’ll have heard about panhandling and the homeless as not being so much a threat to order as a threat to the bottom line. (“Disrupted commerce” is the city’s rationale for this program.) While business representatives talked of customers getting shaken down for change, it seemed instead that they were instead ware of daily reminders that 99% of society doesn’t shop Rodeo Drive. We think that it’s the bumming of change that bums out our business community.

Ambassador zone map

Ambassador zone map with shaded area indicating area outside of business triangle.

Tellingly, only business triangle representatives complained of the “aggressive panhandling” problem in city meetings and through the Chamber of Commerce. Yet panhandlers evidently work city-wide. And we have numerous other business districts, including the adjacent South Beverly area. Yet the ambassador program is limited to the triangle (though with an interesting appendage).

If the scale of the patrol zone and the language of ‘deployment’ makes the ambassador program seem more about urban policing and less about “quality-of-life,” say, then you’ve gotten the point. Though Beverly Hills may put a smile on it, this program is all about policing, not social services or ‘ambassador’ greetings. The city’s June press release for example notes that “ambassadors can witness and serve as victim in court proceedings” when victims of “aggressive panhandling are unwilling to go through the process of filling out a police report.”

Our View

Those who allegedly panhandle “aggressively” are a part of the broader panhandler community: they float in at the start of the day and recede like the tide as commercial activity winds down. In that they have much in common with the suits-and-ties folks who flexed their political muscle to get City Council to pony up for ‘ambassadors.’ Like the hoteliers and restauranteurs, our city’s panhandlers simply see economic opportunity here in Beverly Hills and they’re taking advantage. Let’s call them entrepreneurs!

* Enabling the ‘ambassador’ bicycle patrols required a lightening-fast change in the municipal code, which was accomplished. Previously, only official public safety officers were permitted to ride on sidewalks in commercial areas.