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Mayor’s budget cuts ambassador program protecting neighborhoods ‘where tourists don’t go’

The Community Ambassador Program was launched in 2010 to help protect Muni riders after a series of attacks

A person in a bright yellow safety jacket and black mask speaks with another person in a red shirt on a city street. They're discussing a document the second person is holding.
Community Ambassador Halona St. John answers questions from a community member in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in April 2023. | Source: Courtesy Isaac Ceja

A neighborhood patrol program created more than a decade ago in response to a spate of attacks on Asian Americans and senior Muni riders in San Francisco’s southeast neighborhoods is slated to end due to cuts in Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget. Calling the cut shortsighted, critics say the program fills gaps for an understaffed police department in less frequented areas across San Francisco.

The Community Ambassador Program launched in 2010, first as a pilot program funded with federal stimulus money, to get extra sets of eyes and ears on the Muni transit system. A spate of violent incidents had raised concerns in the Asian American community, sparking demands for protection. The program has since expanded to a total of five neighborhoods—from the Sunset and the Haight to Chinatown and the Bayview—where ambassadors perform wellness checks on the homeless, provide safety escorts and answer 311 calls. 

The program is run by the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, whose former head, Adrienne Pon, said she took inspiration from the Seattle Downtown Ambassadors.

A woman hold an anti overdose kit.
Community Ambassador Halona St. John holds a package of Narcan in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in April 2023. | Source: Courtesy Isaac Ceja

“The program serves areas impacted by drugs and violence in areas of the city where tourists don’t go,” she said about the CAP, which doubles as a workforce development initiative.

Unlike Urban Alchemy or the Welcome Ambassadors, both nonprofits that serve highly trafficked and tourist-heavy districts, the ambassador program serves many of the city’s less traveled areas, she said. 

What’s more, said Pon, the ambassadors are highly trained city employees who have far more oversight and accountability than the nonprofits doing similar work. 

Each team, said Pon, is multilingual and reflects the communities they work in. They undergo a series of trainings, from security guard tactics to conflict resolution, and are all city employees who must pass background checks. 

CAP data shows that its staff made nearly 300,000 interactions this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, including 65,000 wellness checks, and responded to 50,000 calls to 311. Those interactions included administering NARCAN to people who had overdosed, providing safety escorts and, for a period of time, escorting children to school, Pon said. 

Last year, federal employees on 7th Street who complained they felt unsafe because of open-air drug dealing were being escorted by ambassadors to BART and Muni stations.  

Now, 14 years since the program’s inception, cutting its roughly 60 ambassadors may spark a backlash for Breed, particularly for Asian American voters whose communities have continued to face violence and rising fear after several years of increased hate crimes and related incidents. 

At the height of the surge in 2022, Breed said at a press conference that she was “angry about the violence that has continued to impact many of the people who are part of Asian communities.” 

Pon called the cut an unfortunate decision and questioned whether Breed’s commitment to stopping Asian hate was “lip service because it’s an election year” or a real commitment “to keep people safe.” 

Pon is not alone in her opposition to the cuts.

On Tuesday, Supervisor Dean Preston held a press conference on the steps of city hall calling for the mayor to walk back her proposal. Preston told CBS News last week that there had been no discussion about canceling a program that costs roughly $3 million a year and said he believed the city could find a way to continue it.

“This is a vital non-law enforcement option for our community.”

Todd Pakes

Preston’s counterpart in the Sunset, Supervisor Joel Engardio, whose district includes territory the ambassadors patrol, says with so few police and such difficulty hiring new ones, programs like this give people and merchants a feeling of security that is otherwise lacking. 

“They really fill a need and fill a gap when it comes to public safety,” Engardio said. 

In 2023, after a man with a machete entered the Little Footprints preschool and was arrested, he was put on a three-day psych hold, Engardio said. When parents feared his return, two ambassadors kept watch outside the preschool in case he returned. 

Police, said Engardio, would not have been able to stay at one location for so long to assuage the fears of parents. 

Engardio added that while he would like more police officers on the beat, until the city finds a way to encourage more people to apply to the department, programs like the ambassadors should stay in place. 

District 5 resident Todd Pakes said he is disheartened by the potential loss of the program, which is more responsive than police or other city crisis response teams. 

A woman with dark wavy hair speaks into a microphone at a podium, wearing an orange top and blue jacket, in front of a modern building with tall, vertical windows.
Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference on Jan. 26, 2023, where Police Chief Bill Scott announced a plan to increase the uniformed officers in the districts of the city with majority Asian populations. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

“This is a vital non-law enforcement option for our community. I work with a lot of merchants in District 5 and they are all grateful to have a non-law enforcement option in their neighborhood to come by and deescalate rather than arrest people,” he said. 

Breed maintains that this is an unfortunate but necessary cut and that she is still planning to fund other similar programs. 

“In the face of an $800 million deficit, the Mayor is prioritizing direct services programs and initiatives, and has had to make the very difficult decision to decrease funding or eliminate funding for various programs,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. 

Despite cutting the CAP program, the mayor’s budget maintains funding for a number of other non-law enforcement programs and street response teams, including the similarly named but separate SFPDs’s Community Ambassadors and Urban Alchemy in the Tenderloin.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at