It was a slow night for Steve Randall, just the way he likes it.
Only a smattering of teenagers were hanging out along St. Paul’s Payne Avenue on this muggy summer evening as Randall and his dream team of youth workers walked the busy corridor trying to keep kids in line.
“Hey, Stevie Wonder!” a young man nicknamed “Chop” hollered, flashing a smile as he greeted Randall.
Randall is one of nearly 30 community ambassadors patrolling the city’s streets on weekends and busy weeknights this summer, hoping to keep teens and young adults from trouble and run-ins with police.
The small army is on the front line of the city’s $800,000 initiative to engage with at-risk youths. Armed with little more than name tags and their wits — they carry no guns, cuffs or badges — they walk the streets hoping to make neighborhoods safer while trying to win the trust and respect of young people prone to viewing any authority figure as a threat.
“The whole premise of this is to try to keep these kids out of the legal system,” said Senior Cmdr. David Mathison, head of the St. Paul Police Department’s central district, which includes downtown, where the program started last summer as a pilot.
Said Randall, who leads ambassador patrols on the East Side, “It is important for us to be out there as adults talking to these young people.”
One who appreciates their presence is Casey Davis, 20, who goes by “Chop.” Randall has known Davis for the past decade or so and describes him as a young man who wants to do the right thing, but sometimes has too much time on his hands, potentially leading to trouble.
“I think it is making a difference,” Davis said about the ambassador program. But, he added, ambassadors can’t do it alone.
“It takes for the community to want to help,” Davis said.
Randall is known throughout the East Side as the real deal. He’s the assistant director at Wilder Recreation Center, the lead community youth worker for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and co-founder of Youth in Transition, a program that helps young people leave gangs and get back on the right track.
Like Randall, most of the ambassadors have ties with many of the kids they encounter, either through schools, recreation centers or community organizations. Playing off the trust they have built, the ambassadors try to talk with young adults and teenagers one-on-one or in groups to abate potentially dangerous situations and connect them with services such as job skills training or help applying for college financial aid.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in cases when there’s been large groups of young people. … The police have been less than a half block away and they didn’t have to do anything because the ambassadors de-escalated it,” said Billy Collins, executive director of the YWCA St. Paul, which is the fiscal agent for the initiative.
As of Aug. 3, ambassadors in the citywide program, launched in June, had contact with 876 young adults or teenagers — most of them male. They don’t record people’s names or addresses, but they do ask for ZIP codes. The most popular ZIP code was 55106, which takes in a large part of the East Side.
Conversations run the gamut, from college plans and finding a safe shelter to football and human rights.
Many conversations center around finding jobs. One of the biggest complaints from ambassadors is that there aren’t enough jobs and resources available for youths.
At the start of the summer, Mayor Chris Coleman said money would be made available to add summer employment opportunities for at least 45 young people.
Damon Drake, who heads the ambassadors, estimates that only about half of those jobs have materialized.
“We were really put in a bad situation,” he said.
Grant money trickled in slowly, delaying some expansion of services for additional referrals to providers such as Neighborhood House and 180 Degrees, but there are talks to provide additional programming during the school year, Collins said.
Yet even without some resources during the summer, ambassadors have made a difference simply by their presence.
In mid-July, an officer called for an ambassador after large groups of kids were being loud and disorderly in the North End, Mathison said. The ambassador was able to settle the problem without the police getting involved, he said.
Many kids recognize the ambassadors by face.
“If [the kids] do wrong, they don’t do it in front of them,” Mathison said.
A pilot program for the work, started last summer in downtown St. Paul, led to a reduction in crime, Mathison said. According to police statistics, serious crime during that time in that part of downtown dropped 21 percent compared with the year before. Juvenile arrests for serious crime in that area also fell 43 percent during that time.
“A lot of [the youths] are coming down here just to hang out and loiter. … Sometimes it’s just general kids’ stuff that law enforcement doesn’t need to get involved in, but someone from the community can help,” Mathison said.
One of the busiest spots for ambassadors is at the bus stop at 5th and Minnesota streets downtown.
“You are going to see kids here because some of them are homeless. They are in conflicts with their parents. They have nowhere else to go,” Drake said, as he stood near the intersection with other ambassadors and waited for “the regulars.”
As young people walked by, several called out to the ambassadors by name. One was TJ Jackson-Bey, 22, who waited at the bus stop for his girlfriend.
Recently, Jackson-Bey was ordered by authorities not to trespass on the bus for a month. One ambassador, who Jackson-Bey says is like a father to him, convinced him to abide by the restriction and not get into further trouble.
“They ain’t out here playing around,” Jackson-Bey said of the ambassadors.