Content warning: This article contains language that may be triggering or traumatizing to some readers. CW: MENTIONS OF DRUG USE AND OVERDOSE
While patrolling and aiding downtown Bellingham, Safety Ambassadors support the houseless community and create a safe and clean environment.
As the city has implemented key initiatives and passed laws surrounding safety and public drug use, the Safety Ambassadors work as an additional resource to respond to businesses, community members and persons in distress downtown.
“They’re first responders not only for some of our vulnerable population, but also for the business community and tourists,” said Darby Galligan, the City of Bellingham’s senior planner of planning and community development. “They have been an important glue that holds together a lot of the other services that we have.”
The need for a downtown safety program has been discussed amongst city officials for about a decade. Bellingham used ARPA money, a pandemic recovery fund from the federal government, to launch the Safety Ambassador program in April 2022.
The program was introduced as a partnership between the City of Bellingham and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership by Streetplus, a safety, outreach and cleaning service for cities. Streetplus started serving New York City 30 years ago and later expanded its services nationwide.
One of the main concerns of ambassadors is the rate of drug use and overdoses downtown. In October, the team saved the lives of six individuals who overdosed. Moises Hernandez, the Safety Ambassador supervisor, has noticed an increase in overdoses as the colder months approach, with the first half of November surpassing the entirety of October's overdose count.
The ambassadors pick up a supply of Narcan from a local medical tent downtown but are typically out of stock after about two weeks of responding to overdose cases. The amount of overdoses varies monthly, but typically they respond to two to four overdoses in two weeks, with some cases needing multiple dosages of Narcan.
“We never want to be shorthand because that's a life,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez is working with Streetplus and other resources to get a larger supply of Narcan for the team. Additionally, the ambassadors are hoping to be provided with company vehicles so they can respond to crises faster.
Ambassadors perform foot or bike patrols downtown and are stationed at 1300 Commercial St. Their centrality to the community allows them to respond to calls within about two to five minutes. Their services also offer an alternative to incarceration, as some of the situations they respond to could escalate to the status of fines or jailing of individuals without their presence.
While on patrol, the ambassadors aid the community as they come across people in need, and respond to calls from business owners and downtown residents or visitors.
The ambassadors respond to a variety of situations including providing support to businesses and performing wellness checks. As the average cost of living rises and since the city banned public drug use, many calls ambassadors received from business owners and community members involved concerns about houseless individuals' health conditions and removal from private property.
As a response, ambassadors pay extra attention to alleyways downtown where houseless individuals may overdose without the presence of anyone to administer Narcan.
Upon finding an individual who has overdosed, the ambassadors provide appropriate care and referrals to local organizations that can provide further support.
There are no specific skills necessary to become an ambassador, only the ability to pass a drug test and background check are required. When ambassadors arrive on the scene, they’re equipped with a variety of health and safety equipment, as well as a list of local resources that can provide further support and assistance to individuals facing houselessness. They’re also trained in de-escalation, administering Narcan and treating individuals with respect and dignity.
“We talk to these people like what they are – humans. They just want to be heard as well,” Hernandez said.
Ambassadors see high activity on Railroad Avenue, Commercial Street and Cornwall Avenue. Nancy Slesk has been the manager of Woods Coffee on Railroad Avenue for 15 years. Being central to downtown, she has witnessed the state of its safety and cleanliness over the years.
“I’ve been discouraged about the lack of energy to change things, but I feel like in the last six months or so the fact that [the city’s] trying to put effort into making some changes for the positive gave me hope for the city of Bellingham,” Slesk said.
As the ambassadors have been implemented downtown, Slesk has noticed a significant cleanliness improvement, especially in alleyways. She’s hopeful that the city’s efforts will contribute to a safer downtown.
As the Safety Ambassador supervisor, one of Hernandez’s roles is to assign ambassadors to a zone to patrol downtown. The zones are categorized by geographical regions based on hilled or flat areas.
During patrols, ambassadors scan checkpoints, most of which are in alleyways. Upon responding to mental or behavioral health situations, ambassadors focus on defusing and de-escalating. If a situation escalates beyond the capabilities of the ambassadors, they partner with other resources such as the Bellingham Police Department and Emergency Medical Services to provide the best care for individuals in need.
Peggy Platter has owned Sojourn, a boutique located on Railroad Avenue, for the past 29 years. When Platter opened the store it was boarded up, along with many others downtown.
In addition to scattered debris, drug paraphernalia and human feces, Sojourn often opens its back door to houseless individuals sitting on the step.
Platter lost a close family member to a drug overdose and expressed that they donate money toward local recovery programs in hopes of helping houseless individuals struggling with addiction. However, due to safety concerns, it’s common for Platter to contact the ambassadors to perform a wellness check or remove individuals from the property.
Platter expressed the enjoyment of being a “welcome wagon” for downtown visitors and getting to know the community. Despite the increased safety concerns and public drug use over the past 10 years, Platter says they’re not giving up on downtown.
“I believe that people can get help,” Platter said. “I believe in downtown.”
Due to the high activity on Railroad Avenue, the ambassadors patrol the street and check in with many of the business owners, such as Platter, daily.
“The ambassadors truly care,” said Brooklyn Avery, a Sojourn employee. “Although there's lots going on [downtown], they make sure it's a safe place for us.”
The city of Bellingham and Whatcom County have multiple programs that work together to provide support to the houseless and behavioral health needs in the community. The ambassadors serve as ground-level resources to these individuals by providing immediate care and referral to local programs for further support.
Marie Duckworth is a communications specialist at Whatcom County Health and Community Services, which oversees many local programs, including: the Law Enforcement Assisted Division, Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement, and the Alternative Response Team. Duckworth believes building trust and respect with houseless individuals contributes to the impact that local programs have.
“When you meet people where they are, show them you believe they have dignity and worth and give them that level of support, then I believe that kind of positive emotional support can have a community-wide impact person by person,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth explained that LEAD functions to pair individuals with an intensive case manager to help them throughout their recovery process and out of the criminal justice system. She emphasized that referrals come to LEAD from many different community resources and programs such as Safety Ambassadors, law enforcement and community members.
“[Local programs are] connecting people who need services with those services, but they’re also connecting people who are providing services with one another,” Duckworth said. “There are many different organizations in our community who are working to provide different kinds of services. The more that those organizations can work together and stay well connected to one another, that makes it easier to help the people whom they're serving.”
The City of Mount Vernon has a similar preventative safety program to the Safety Ambassadors called Citizens on Proactive Patrol. COPP functions similarly to the ambassadors, except the community volunteers work with the city’s police department.
COPP members are volunteers of the Mount Vernon Police Department who have passed a background check, graduated from the city’s Citizens Academy and have completed a series of field training. Some of their training includes understanding the MVPD dispatch system and radio and patrol procedures.
Their advanced training equips them with skills to be an extra set of eyes for the MVPD.
“A police department can't do it alone. We have to partner with the community and look at creative ways to problem solve,” said Mount Vernon Police Lt. David Shackleton. “So using volunteers or a program like Bellingham Safety Ambassadors is a great way to do that.”
COPP members provide aid to the MVPD 24/7 on a variety of cases, such as road closures and missing person searches.
The Western Washington University Police Department created the Green Coats – aka Public Safety Assistants – in the 1960s to assist with safety on campus. The student employees are responsible for foot patrols, providing escorts and locking/unlocking doors from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Western’s Chief of Police Katy Potts believes safety assistant programs, such as the ambassadors and Green Coats, add a level of security to communities without police involvement.
“It’s nice to see that [Bellingham] has the ambassadors because I know just a sense of safety and security is a big concern from our students as well as their families,” Potts said. “I know people have a hesitancy to possibly go up to the police and to have somebody that's not an officer as a resource is really great.”
Potts hopes to partner with the ambassadors in the future to provide the best support for students on and off campus by collaborating on training and understanding ambassadors protocols.
Since its launch in April 2022, the total program cost to date has been approximately $400,000. Approximately $180,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds will go toward program funding for 2024. The remainder of the funds will need to come from additional resources.
The ambassadors patrol downtown Bellingham from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, along with their evening and night-time patrol partners, Risk Solutions Unlimited, who patrol from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. To contact the ambassadors, call (360) 220-1156, and call (360) 824-2383 to reach RSU.
Sophie Cadran(she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a second-year journalism student at Western with a minor in communication studies. In her free time, she enjoys getting outside with friends and family, reading and swimming.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org