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March 29, 2020
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Berkeley YMCA Opens its Doors to Telegraph Ambassadors

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The first Telegraph Avenue ambassador moved into the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, a gym facility, on December 1, making housing a new job benefit of being a Telegraph ambassador. The ambassador program was started in Downtown Berkeley in January 2012, and spread to Telegraph in March 2014. The program, originally funded for a trial year, was started by Block by Block, a Kentucky-based organization which offers a variety of services such as cleaning and safety to downtown areas. While the ambassador program began with funds of $240,00, it has since evolved drastically to help meet the needs of ambassadors.

Current ambassadors paint over  graffiti, power-wash streets,  sweep sidewalks, and direct visitors in the area. The ambassador program is part of a greater movement in Berkeley that is centered around improving areas in Downtown Berkeley, such as Telegraph Avenue. Programs like these are part of Business Improvement Districts (BID), which supplement city services and help make areas tidier and more welcoming. While the ambassador program is one method of improving Telegraph, it is not the only one. Other examples of programs to help revitalize the area around Telegraph include Sundays on Telegraph, a day long event featuring food vendors, live music, street performers and a host of activities for families. While these big events have proved popular, the daily work of Telegraph ambassadors has provided an invaluable resource to the improvement of Telegraph.

The addition of housing as a benefit of being an ambassador is very timely, as the cost of living in the Bay Area has increased drastically over the past few years.  This was echoed by Lance Gorée, the current Executive Director of Hotel and Facilities at the Berkeley YMCA. Gorée believes housing is a necessary addition for the ambassadors, as he previously oversaw the program. “I saw many of my ambassadors in unstable housing situations. Many had to quit because they had to move to areas far away from where housing was more affordable or available for them,” said Gorée. He added that many ended up becoming homeless while being employed or soon after because of such unstable housing.

Stuart Baker, Executive Director of the Telegraph BID, said: “Every time I bring up work of the ambassadors to the public, I am always met with appreciation. Staying at the YMCA is a great way of providing access for people who need a roof over their heads.”

At the YMCA, the ambassadors will live in a set-up similar to a hostel. Rooms consist of a twin bed, dresser, closet, desk, and a chair. Bathrooms are located on each floor, and there is a shared kitchen, lounging area, and computer room.

Gorée explained there are many advantages to the housing in addition to it relieving the stress of finding a permanent home. He stated that being able to live at the YMCA will eliminate lengthy commutes, encourage better health by providing access to wellness facilities, and improve employees’ quality of life.

While ambassador programs are in place across the country, the housing aspect is a particularly prevalent issue in the Bay Area. Berkeley’s homeless population has increased in the past two years, housing costs are relatively high, and low-income neighborhoods are gentrifying rapidly. However, Gorée believes the YMCA housing benefit can be a model for other ambassador programs. He said, “Employers can set themselves apart by helping to stabilize the housing and increasing quality life of their lower income workers.”

One employee, Alejandro, has worked as a Telegraph ambassador for 10 months. In regards to staying at the YMCA, he said: “I am keeping my options open, maybe in the future.” While the experience has not always been easy, Alejandro is grateful to work as an ambassador because he enjoys giving back to the community.

One company, Streetplus, partners with BIDs and hires employees that work as ambassadors around the country. Services include cleaning, hospitality, safety, and landscaping.

San Francisco’s program, the Community Corridor Ambassadors, began in 2006. These ambassadors work in the busiest parts of the city, keeping it clean and welcoming. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in 2018, the city decided to spend three million dollars to hire 44 more ambassadors. Local businesses and residents have expressed their satisfaction with the program, and long-time residents say they have never seen the city look so clean. Berkeley’s program is also widely appreciated, and the YMCA is now providing useful services to the city’s ambassadors, taking a step towards a future that benefits all members of the Berkeley community.

Naomi Birenbaum

Naomi Birenbaum

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