Some days, Ebony Allen helps bus riders who are lost find the proper route and stop. Or she holds a child’s hand while their mother pays for the bus fare.
Other days, Allen radios in a request for Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s (RTA) transit police to report people sleeping or to request a co-response team if someone needs help accessing a treatment center.
What is co-response? Co-response is a program where a police officer is teamed up with a mental health expert to respond to or follow up on 911 calls that involve a mental health crisis.
Allen is one of 11 ambassadors who ride the Red Line and the Healthline – RTA’s two busiest routes – making sure elevators and transit pass kiosks work, requesting service if a station needs to be cleaned, and greeting riders walking through train stations and bus shelters.
RTA launched its Transit Ambassador Program last September.
Along with creating the ambassador positions, RTA embedded social workers into its police department. Four teams made up of a social worker and a police officer respond to people who are experiencing mental health crises, substance use, or homelessness.
“I think both programs have exceeded expectations as far as having civilians intertwined within the police department,” said Commander Orlando Hudson, who oversees RTA’s Crisis Intervention Team. “The goal was to lessen the law enforcement footprint on our system.”
Signal Cleveland asked RTA to provide data that shows the effectiveness of the program.
“We’re not too confident in the numbers we’ve collected thus far,” Hudson said. “We’re still working on that, to capture that data.”
However, about a year ago, RTA started a program where people go out and talk to community members about their experience using the transit system, he said.
“We’ve definitely seen positive trends in safety while waiting and safety … on the vehicles that our transit ambassadors are assigned to,” Hudson said.
He said the department hasn’t looked into the crime statistics to see if having ambassadors and co-response teams has reduced crime.
‘We can call a social worker’
On Wednesday morning, Allen, Janice Brooks and Alecia Miller, RTA ambassadors, hopped on and off the Red Line between Tower City and the airport. Miller is still in training. It’s her third week on the job.
Their red vests read “RTA Ambassador” across the back, and they carry tablets where they log significant interactions with passengers and the conditions of trains, buses and stations.
All three greeted riders as they boarded the train: “Good morning, how’s everybody doing?”
Some people respond, others nod, and others simply ignore the greeting.
At the Puritas Station, Allen walked up the stairs and found a man napping next to an elevator. He sat up as she asked loudly enough to wake him, “Everything OK?”
The man didn’t engage when Allen asked if he needed help. She told him he couldn’t sleep there and should try to get up and move around.
Wearing a tan sweatshirt, he sat on the top step, holding his head between his hands for a few minutes, looking down at his matching sweatpants.
Back downstairs by the station’s entrance, Allen called transit police and told them about the man. When police arrived a few minutes later, he was downstairs on the train platform.
Allen and the other two ambassadors walked back to the platform and found the man lying on a bench.
“We can call a social worker for you,” she said.
The man declined.
Allen said she doesn’t insist on helping, but if she were to see him again later in the day she might try a different approach, such as offering him a water bottle.
A year in, Allen said her job has been rewarding.
“In general we’re just like, I call it an RTA hug,” Allen said, smiling. “We just want to help everybody we come in contact with. Make the ride a very pleasant experience and get everybody where they’re supposed to be.”
Ambassadors’ more frequent interactions are telling a person they can’t smoke on the platform or asking someone sleeping on a train if they’re OK.
When ambassadors can’t solve a problem alone, they sometimes call a co-response team for backup.
‘It’s very rewarding work’
Brittany Williams, a crisis intervention specialist, rides with a Transit Police officer on a co-response team. They carry socks, shoes, underwear and t-shirts to give to people who need such items.
They also connect people to community services such as shelters, hospitals, behavioral health centers, crisis centers and addiction treatment centers.
Williams shared a story of a mother of four who was unhoused. An RTA booth attendant at the Tower City station reached out to Williams and her partner, a transit officer, asking them to help the woman who said she didn’t have a place to go.
It took several hours, but Williams was able to find a space at Haven House for the family to stay that night. Williams and the officer with her helped keep the kids busy and stayed on the phone helping the woman with some of the assessments required to be accepted into the shelter, she said.
Because the shelter opened later in the day, Williams told the co-response team working the night shift about the woman’s situation. She ensured her co-workers on the next shift would transport the family to the shelter.
“It’s very rewarding work,” Williams said.
Hudson said crisis intervention specialists have been able to check on officers and other RTA employees and help them deal with trauma.
“It’s a nice layer to add to law enforcement,” Hudson said. “Not just for the external benefits that our riders and customers experience from our ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists, but they’ve been a breath of fresh air internally as well.”