Green Square Ambassador Program Continues, Despite Challenges
You don't spend $2 million to renovate a park without intending to keep it safe and cosmetically attractive in the long run. Work was completed in 2016 and within two years, an area that was intended to be revitalized as a community "town square" began reverting to a haven for hostility and confrontation including a fight that led to a murder.
In 2019, 47-year-old Troy Wilson admitted to and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 38-year-old Scott Dexter.
Without stigmatizing the serious homelessness and mental health issues in the community and across the country, Cedar Rapids city leaders had to acknowledge them as the root cause of many of the increased tensions in the Green Square area, and the ambassador program began.
Through Willis Dady Homeless Services, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, the Cedar Rapids Police Department, the Willis Dady Center, and the Cedar Rapids Library, volunteers are hired who’ve had to rely on social services or who have experienced homelessness themselves in the past, to connect with people who are in that same boat now and diffuse issues that may arise. From duties as simple as picking up litter to reminding people of the park rules, they will also intervene in smaller disturbances and refer people who need help to the resources they need. The city has also sought to make Green Square more active with public events to curb these private incidents of violence.
After the program launched in 2018, immediate progress was seen. The Gazette notes that arrests in the park decreased after the ambassador program started and other policy changes were made, going from 44 arrests in 2018 to 19 in 2020. Unfortunately, in 2021, squarely in the middle of the pandemic and aftermath of the derecho where homelessness and mental health issues were once again exacerbated, that number went back up to 41.
Other downtown incidents, like the shooting that killed two people outside the Taboo Nightclub & Lounge in March, might make you wonder how effective this program is. The stakeholders who made the original recommendations for Greene Square continue to meet each month to address ongoing issues and make recommendations because they say it's important for all involved to continue the program. Most who volunteer as ambassadors are rehabilitated, finding homes and jobs in the community, and the work done in the Green Square area in recent years deserves to be maintained.