Lighting the way: 2nd-chance individuals serve, give back to city as hospitality ambassadors

Zainab Ali/Senior Staff
Field operations manager Robert Walker was homeless before becoming a hospitality ambassador for the city. A recovering addict, he now serves as a kind of "lighthouse" for tourists and homeless people alike, helping them find their way around Berkeley.

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Robert Walker’s cheery disposition and warm “good mornings” to passersby in Downtown Berkeley make it hard to imagine that seven years ago he came to the city homeless.

A recovering addict nearing eight years of sobriety, Walker is now the field operations manager of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s ambassador program, a hospitality and cleaning services program that aims to create a more inviting Downtown environment. Managed by Block by Block, the ambassador program is one of several the company operates throughout the Bay Area and country.

Walker, 57, is a second-chance individual — someone who is formerly homeless, recovering from addiction or has prior arrest records — providing the same services he once received to people living on the streets in Berkeley. He started working as an ambassador for a similar city program in 2010 before joining the then-newly launched Block by Block ambassador program in Downtown Berkeley two years later.

“We’re just little lighthouses, pointing them in the right direction,” Walker said. “Because I was once homeless and I had an addiction problem, whoever I run into who has a problem, I know which direction to point them in.”

Whether he is guiding a lost group of tourists to Sather Tower or informing a homeless person of the emergency beds located at 1931 Center St., Walker takes pride in his ability to help people navigate the ins and outs of Berkeley.

That’s the better part of my day and my life: when I get a chance to help somebody that’s still within a stuck point,” Walker said.

Although the contract with Block by Block requires that a quarter of the ambassador staff for the Downtown Berkeley Association, or DBA, be second-chance hires, DBA operations manager Lance Goree said these individuals frequently make up half of the association’s program.

Consistently hiring second-chance individuals through local social services organizations and hiring agencies is particularly unique for an employer, as many in the country with criminal records or a history of substance abuse can face job discrimination for their past. Moreover, the ambassador program pays employees $15 an hour, $4 above the current city minimum wage.

We try to have a very diverse group because we’re going to have to interact with a very diverse group of people,” said Goree, who oversees the DBA ambassadors program. “We were getting a lot of good referrals through the second-chance program whenever we had openings.”

Zainab Ali/Staff

Zainab Ali/Staff

Walker’s morning starts at 4 a.m. as he makes his way through the district’s area coverage between Dwight Way and Delaware Street, and between Oxford Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. His eyes are always scanning the neighborhood for unattended property or new graffiti that has cropped up, which he catalogs in a small beat-up blue notebook.

“It’s on a few buildings and way up high, and you wonder how they didn’t break their neck getting it up there,” Walker said as he picks up a plastic bottle near the curb.

On one of those early morning strolls, Walker ran into Dan Hrabosky, former campus executive assistant to the assistant vice chancellor of human resources, at University Hall. The train had been late and it was cold out, but Walker’s greeting changed Hrabosky’s mood instantly.

“It really made a difference. I had a lot on my mind and was all caught up in it, and he was just so warm and so genuine,” Hrabosky said.

As one of 19 current DBA ambassadors, Walker hopes to make this kind of impact every day when he dons his neon green shirt and matching cap. But while the job is rewarding, interacting with people on a daily basis, particularly homeless people on the streets, can be both physically and emotionally taxing.

In 2014, a DBA hospitality ambassador found the body of a man who had previously been seen on the streets outside Peet’s Coffee and Tea. Earlier this year, after a woman fell from a building and died, it was a Telegraph Business Improvement District ambassador who was one of the first on the scene to clean the area early in the morning.

“We see a lot of things,” Goree said. “When we do wakeups in the morning, not everyone wakes up.”

The strain of being a constant model of hospitality can get to some employees, especially those who have experienced hardship. Last year, a video surfaced online showing a DBA ambassador assaulting a homeless man. The employee, who was a second-chance hire and fired soon after the incident, had just had enough, Goree said.  

Zainab Ali/Staff

Zainab Ali/Staff

For Walker, though, the good days far outweigh the bad ones. During one of his recent tours through the district, after waking up a sleeping young man in front of The Freight & Salvage, Walker brought him back to the DBA office to get him some snack packs.

On their way, Walker became a personal city tour guide for the homeless youth, pointing out various businesses and art galleries and asking whether the man had artistic talents. The man smiled and mentioned his interest in drawing. Walker replied, saying he wishes he could play the drums.

I got a little rhythm,” Walker said laughing. “My foot just gets tired and I miss a beat.”

The skills that ambassadors learn on the job, Goree said, can often lead to fulfilling careers, despite the challenges some face as second-chance individuals. One former DBA ambassador who was a second-chance hire, Carlos Paz-Rivera, now works as Jack London Improvement District’s operations manager in Oakland.

While many ambassadors branch out in the hospitality and service industry, Walker is happy where he is, giving back to the community that gave him a chance at a fresh start when he first arrived — though, he said, he’s not taking upper management completely off the table.

“I love what I do; I’m engaging with people,” Walker said. “Like I said, I’m a little lighthouse pointing everybody in the right direction. (I have) no plans of quitting or going anywhere else. Berkeley is just wonderful.”

Contact Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.