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.