For months now, the 24th Street BART plaza has had a strong uniformed presence of representatives from the Department of Public Health, Muni, Public Works and the Police Department.
Come 2023, that presence will be further bolstered in the Mission District with the addition of 12 to 14 new “community ambassadors” that will be added to the six to eight already working at neighborhood schools.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office says the Mission District will receive $2 million in funding from the Mayor’s office to more than double the neighborhood’s existing ambassadors. The funding is part of a recent expansion of the city’s ambassador program that will add some 150 new community ambassadors across San Francisco.
Ronen’s office hopes the contract to hire and train the new workers will go to the local nonprofit Instituto Familiar de la Raza, said her legislative aide, Santiago Lerma. A bidding process with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development will begin in the coming weeks.
The new ambassadors, expected to be on the ground by January, will be different from the ambassadors that patrol commercial corridors and downtown hotspots, Lerma said. And, although they will be deployed on Mission Street with a focus on the two BART plazas, they will also serve a different purpose from the police, public works and other officials who already hover around the 24th Street Plaza to enforce the vending ordinance and discourage fencing of stolen goods.
“They’re not there to enforce laws, they’re there to help people feel more safe, to answer questions, to be of help to the community,” Lerma told Mission Local. He said Ronen’s office will work with Instituto Familiar de la Raza to determine what the community needs are.
The workers will be trained in de-escalation, and their duties could extend to asking people publicly consuming drugs to move along, Lerma added, but “there’s no specific task” for the ambassadors at this point.
He added that the Instituto would “hire people from the community, based in the community, who know the community — and that, for us, is a top priority,” Lerma said. “That people feel safe and there is local knowledge of what happens, what needs to happen.”
An Instituto Familiar de la Raza spokesperson declined to comment for this story, saying it “has not yet determined its role in the ambassador program.”
At present, six to eight ambassadors are deployed daily around schools in the Mission, Lerma said. These workers come through the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, and ensure children using public transportation can get to school safely. After assisting at schools during the morning hours, the school ambassadors will join the new ones and turn their focus to the plazas.
Based on his observations, Lerma said there is also a need for an evening presence: “When kids and parents are coming home, that’s when we need to make sure that people are feeling safe going through the plaza and getting to and from where they need to go.”
The existing city workers at the 24th Street plaza originally meant to discourage illegal vending and enforce the new permit requirements will continue: Ronen announced last week that, although there are now a few dozen permitted street vendors around 24th & Mission Bart Station, there’s still work to be done. Walking around the 16th Street BART plaza, one can spot the types of vendors that were once concentrated at 24th Street.
Lerma said that the Department of Public Works, which originally shifted resources to contribute workers to the plaza in recent months, will soon hire more inspectors to ensure there is an ongoing and consistent city presence in the plaza.
“There’s been an incredible improvement in the safety, the cleanliness; the permitted vendors are able to operate free of a criminal element,” Lerma said. “So it’s been really important.”
He was unsure whether the plaza has seen any quantifiable shifts in crime, but noted that enforcement helped deter extortion over turf and diminish the market for stolen goods.
The ambassadors are part of a larger push to bring more civilian watchdogs to certain areas of the city, announced by Mayor London Breed in October. It follows the mayor and SFPD’s announcement of a Community Ambassador program in 2021, comprised of retired police officers who patrolled areas like Union Square and downtown to address shoplifting.
This year, that program is being expanded “throughout downtown BART/Muni stations and key tourist areas,” and will add up to 150 new ambassadors and attendants of varied backgrounds, according to recent press releases from the Mayor’s Office. An additional $8 to 9 million will fund the expansion, Noel Sanchez, a spokesperson for the office, told Mission Local.
These will include San Francisco’s Welcome Ambassadors, Tenderloin Safety Ambassadors, SFPD retiree Community Ambassadors, and BART service attendants.