BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Tony Hugo checks the stairwells for homeless people as he makes his rounds through downtown Bellingham.
"It can be a dangerous situation," he said. "People don't like to be woken up. They can be violent. We'll stand a few feet away, especially if we've gotten a call to check on them."
Tony is part of the city's new Safety Ambassador program, through the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.
The unarmed teams are trained in de-escalation techniques with the intention of lightening the load on an overburdened and understaffed police department. If they're called to a disturbance, ambassadors will try to defuse the situation and call outreach teams that can connect the person with the services they need.
"It's really just being a friendly presence," Tony said. "We go up, we introduce ourselves. We let people know that there is someone watching them, and we try to help."
Like many cities, Bellingham has seen a surge in vandalism, crime, addiction and homelessness since the start of the pandemic. The city is also dealing with a shortage of police.
The patrols aim to renew a sense of confidence among those downtown that the city has matters under control.
The program is a two-year pilot project being funded with $400,000 of federal COVID-19 relief money.
"There was considerable frustration downtown, and that might be an understatement," said Mayor Seth Fleetwood. "Cities have to deal with the effects of all of these societal ills. We have to work on them as best we can, and we are."
Jo Jo Dutton runs Jo Jo's Donuts downtown. She said the homeless and mentally ill are something she's had to learn to deal with on a regular basis.
"We've had incidents of people stealing or trying to steal things, people who are clearly off their meds," she said.
Dutton, however, believes the patrols, now entering their third month, are making a difference.
"I like the fact that it's not a forceful presence. It's a peaceful presence," she said. "And it's really comforting to know that if I need Tony, all I have to do is call."
Instead of calling 911 for downtown disturbances, people are asked to call the ambassadors directly at 360-220-1156.
For Tony, his work is personal. His father was homeless on the streets of Bellingham for nearly two years.
"It's a small percentage of the people who are causing the problems. The rest just need help," he said. "When you're out here everyday seeing the things that we see, you have to have compassion. You have to have humanity in you."