Walking Ambassadors: Unsung Neighborhood Heroes

“They used to call me candy man,” says Nick Hitchko, about the early years when he carried a vest full of Snickers bars for the addicts he’d engage with.

Candy served as the ultimate icebreaker, a way to establish rapport and build trust in the hopes of connecting them, many struggling with homelessness, to services in the area. “It got too expensive, but some still call me that.”

Hitchko has worked as a Central Market CBD Community Guide for just over eight years, covering an area from 5th Street to Van Ness, crisscrossing between Mission and Market Streets. Hitchko’s job is to foster a safe and welcoming public realm for everyone. In some instances, safety boils down to aligning the proper teams to properly discard of hazardous wastes, or picking up the remnants of cast off encampments. Other times it’s as simple as making someone feel welcome by helping them find their way. Other times, it truly is life and death.

Central Market CBD Community Guides talk with a resident on Mission and 7th Streets. Photo: Epicenter-sf

Hitchko prides himself on an ability to connect with anyone, from addicts to tourists, seamlessly. “You can’t judge.” he says. His personality, along with patience and compassion, seem to be requisites for the job. “I remember years ago talking with (then Mayor) Gavin Newsom and three minutes later I was helping a woman who was suicidal and wanted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. After that it was a famous football coach.”

Hitchko estimates he’s helped thousands of people in the last eight years. Sometimes, it’s as simple as bottled water. With others it’s just about listening, talking about fishing or Led Zeppelin, waiting for the day when the conversation turns to accepting the help offered, in many cases for the 100th time. Always, it’s about services, connecting people with resources in the area. Hitchko is a walking directory. On a given day, he’ll work with the SF HOT Team, Larkin Street Youth Services, myriad case workers, clinicians, SFPD, Hospitality House, Tom Waddell, the Department of, Veterans Affairs, Joe Healy Detox Program, RAMS, the Medical Respite Sobering Center, DPW, and the list goes on and on. But as he puts it “some people are just allergic to services. You can’t force them into services.”

Hitchko earned a degree in cultural studies and now can’t help but scoff at some of the critical theories presented, for the lack of credence with which they treated the power of addiction.

“When I first started this I thought [with] every person I encountered, ‘I’m going to get them in recovery, get them in residential treatment, this is going to be incredible. Get their intake and by mid next week they’re going to be in a program.’ You start to see how strong the addiction is. As the years go on, you start looking for small achievements.”

Since his university days, Hitchko has gone through a variety of continuing education courses including: de-escalation, crisis intervention, sexual harassment, behavioral and mental health and much more. Asked what it takes to keep him going amid constant attempts to connect people coupled with high rates of recidivism, he offered a response we’d later hear echoed from other Guides and Ambassadors in the area. “It just takes that one person to come up to me and say, ‘I remember you from a couple years ago. Do you remember me?’”

Hitchko meets with Memphis on Stevenson Alley. Photo: Epicenter-sf

So the small achievements do come, and when they do, they’re not small at all. That afternoon Hitchko greeted a man he recognized from years before. Afterwards, he tells us “Memphis, he battled the bottle for a long time. Now he’s in the Navigation Center. Says he hasn’t had a sip in a year.”

One after another, Hitchko shares stories of people breaking through and getting better.

Sadly, Hitchko has lost people too. Asked how he handles those situations, he says, “Rather than letting it swallow me, I’ll reach out to the family or write a letter telling them how much their son or daughter meant to me.”

Ultimately, Hitchko would love to work to influence policy, advocating for innovation in the way we treat addiction, from wet housing to more supportive recovery centers to safe injection sites, he says, “We have to be more realistic.”

Central Market CBD Guide with SFPD 10B Officer.

Since July, the Mid Market Business Association (MMBA) has sponsored a program to pair a walking SFPD 10B officer with a Community Guide like Nick. Laura Stepping, an MMBA member, said “We don’t feel like we need to police the community,” noting the goal of the program is not about enforcement, but bridging a service gap during busy summer months for a short-staffed police department. Pairing a Community Guide next to an officer reduces the intimidation some community members might feel when they see the uniform, she says, which creates an opportunity to foster connection. Through daily reports, the Officer and Guide pairs are collecting data, which Stepping says are used to show what would not happen had the team not been there.

Certainly, the Central Market Community Guides are not the only neighborhood ambassadors within Epicenter-sf’s coverage area. On occasion, the various teams connect to share experience and best practices. We learned they just recently went bowling together.

Rene Greenwood stands in Civic Center Plaza. Photo: Epicenter-sf

In Civic Center, the Civic Center CBD also provides Community Guides. Rene Greenwood, who’s worked as a Guide in Civic Center for four years, and previously in the Central Market area, says there’s been a lot of improvement to many of the alleyways but acknowledges there’s more work to do. The addition of a Community Guide attending to the Civic Center parking garage has been well received by visitors; and Greenwood says the recent assignment of an additional 10b officer in the area has helped to improve non-emergency response times, which previously could take hours. Like Hitchko, Greenwood says his favorite part about his job his helping people. “I see them, in the worst shape, people who you don’t think are going to come out of it. But what I tell others is that I see people in the worst situations get out of it. One person at a time. It is very possible.

Community Ambassadors attend a briefing about the Sound Commons LIZ in UN Plaza. Photo: Epicenter-sf

There’s also the City’s OCEIA Community Ambassadors Program (CAP). You can spot these ambassadors in their fluorescent yellow vests. CAP doubles as a job training program while providing safety and neighborhood engagement. It was initiated in the southeast neighborhoods of Bayview and Visitacion Valley by community leaders and advocates concerned about safety. CAP has since expanded, with ambassador teams currently operating in five neighborhoods: Bayview, Chinatown, Mid-Market/Tenderloin, Mission, Visitacion Valley/Portola.

Tenderloin Safe Passage, a mostly volunteer run program that provides safe passage along troubled routes throughout the neighborhood for children. Safe Passage and CAP recently partnered on an initiative to expand pedestrian safety support for seniors in the area. “We have a lot of seniors and senior programs in the neighborhood,” says Tenderloin Safe Passage Corner Captain Mike Cameron as he points to various program facilities from the corner of Jones and Turk Streets. “They don’t want to be hostage in their rooms. We’re letting them know that they’re safe.”

Ahead of partnering for an inititative to provide safe passage for seniors int he neighborhood, CAP Ambassadors and TL Safe Passage Corner Captains share best practices on Market Street. Photo: Epicenter-sf

We reached out to Deputy Chief Mike Redmond of San Francisco Police Department Operations Bureau in an email to comment on the various Community Guide and Ambassador programs. Deputy Chief Redmond wrote:

“They are great partners of ours providing another set of eyes on the street with the goal of making the communities they work in safe and enjoyable for all. They collaborate with SFPD officers in many ways to promote safety in the community by walking their areas of responsibility and providing a visible presence as representatives of San Francisco. All of the Guides and Ambassadors that I have worked with are very engaging with the community and have good decision-making skills on appropriate reporting. They also make themselves available to all district station Captains attending community meetings and helping to get the message out on the street about supportive programs and services.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Community Guide and Ambassador programs and several other neighborhood safety resources in Central Market, this Monday, September 12 from 3–5pm, offers a great opportunity. The Central Market CBD is hosting a TED-Talks style Safety Summit at ACT’s Strand Theater on Market Street. Coffee and cookies will be served before the presentations with wine and hor d’oeuvres to follow. RSVP is required for the free event, but tickets are going fast and registration caps at 300. You can register for the CMCBD Safety Summit here.