SCHENECTADY — The familiar red-jacketed Downtown Ambassadors are missing from downtown Schenectady, gone with the downtown nightlife that was their reason for being there.
They haven’t disbanded — they’re working elsewhere, still wearing red but out of the public eye.
On Thursday, a crew of Ambassadors loaded boxes of donated food into 29 school buses to be distributed to children who aren’t getting meals in school during the COVID-19 shutdown. It was a meaningful task for the homeless and formerly homeless men, some of whom have known hunger themselves.
“My ma was a single parent, I was the only boy in the house with four sisters,” said Sean Willi. “There was a lot of times we had to go to pantries and struggle week by week. So I can definitely relate.”
The City Mission of Schenectady uses its Ambassador program as an step in the continuum of helping people rebuild themselves, as it teaches and reinforces life skills and work skills while providing a small income.
It’s reserved for those who’ve already made progress turning their lives around and may be ready to transition out of the homeless shelter.
In normal times, the 15 men and women who are Ambassadors are a friendly presence greeting visitors to downtown attractions and giving them directions or walking them across streets.
“Their work stopped when Proctors stopped, and when Downtown literally stopped,” said City Mission CEO Mike Saccocio. “We didn’t want to just lay them off or displace them.”
Instead, the Ambassadors have been assigned other tasks, such as working within the shelter itself — or loading the school buses, which is an adaptation of the Mission’s regular Weekend Backpack program, sending needy children home with food on Fridays for the weekend, when they can’t get school meals.
“Our first thought was, would this stop when the schools close? But all the school districts said ‘No, we kind of need it more than ever,’ " said Saccocio. “Buses are bringing it right to bus stops and families that are registered can come and pick up their bag of food. We’ve expanded our outreach.”
Willi had been couch-hopping and was all but homeless when he came to the City Mission. He credits the yearlong Bridges to Freedom program there with straightening out his priorities and helping him achieve a spiritual balance, and said interacting with the public as an Ambassador helped him further.
“It was a lot of personal growth,” he said. “I was more closed off, more socially awkward, very afraid of public speaking.”
Willi now lives in one of the apartments the Mission maintains for people who have left the shelter but aren’t ready, for financial or other reasons, to live fully independent lives.
Longtime Schenectady resident Joseph Milos, another Ambassador working on food distribution Thursday, said he sees helping load the food as part of his repayment to the Mission for helping him through his problems.
“They were kind enough to give me the job so I can make money so I can do my next step,” he said. “It makes me feel good that they’re doing something like that for the kids.”
It’s also a form of therapy for his recently rebuilt shoulder, as his physical therapy visits are on hold through the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I’m up to here,” Milos said, lifting his left hand up to shoulder height — high enough to put a box of food aboard a bus, if not to change a lightbulb.
“I’m building that back up,” he said. “While this is going on I can’t go to therapy. I’m waiting for the doctors to come back.”
This is a remarkable time, Saccocio said. The sudden halt in the national economy may boost the need for the Mission’s services and may crimp the philanthropy that pays for it. Meanwhile, Mission clients have to be kept six feet from one another, even in the crowded male dormitory.
“We are literally relearning how to run a shelter in a pandemic,” he said.
There are a few silver linings, Saccocio said: Warmer weather is coming, and with it a decreased demand for homeless shelter beds; donors remain generous so far; community organizations are banding together for strength; and through their life experiences, the homeless typically are tempered to adversity.
They don't enjoy it, but they are accustomed to dealing with it.
“People who are used to living in a crisis often do very well in a crisis,” Saccocio said.
And the Downtown Ambassadors? They’ll be back, when Downtown is back.
“The day will come again and they will be right back on duty,” he said.