116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids spent almost $2 million to renovate Greene Square in 2016 as a downtown hub for activities like farmers markets, concerts and festivals.
After a man was killed during a fight in the park in 2018, and other incidents, the city took a deeper look at how to keep the area safe, working with representatives from the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, the Cedar Rapids Police Department, the Willis Dady Center and the Cedar Rapids Library, which is across the street from Greene Square.
What’s happened since
The immediate adjustments included adding video cameras and signs to the park and prohibiting smoking and alcohol use, except as approved for special events.
The city also increased programs and events at the park to provide more structure and engagement.
“We’re making active things happen in this Greene Square and downtown area to encourage people to come and be a part of these beautiful spaces because the more good things happen, the less opportunity there is for bad things to happen when nobody’s paying attention,” said Dara Schmidt, director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
The city also implemented an ambassador program run by Willis Dady.
In that program, people who’ve had to rely on social services or who’ve experienced homelessness are hired to patrol Greene Square and other downtown areas during the summer. They remind park visitors of the rules, help keep the park clean, intervene in small disturbances and refer people who need help to social service agencies.
One ambassador is already working this summer and two more will be starting soon, according to Todd Simonson, the library’s public services manager.
“We’ve seen great successes and improvement” with the ambassador program, he said. “I think it’s fair to say we do have situations that come up, but having people that have regular connections get support and services to individuals that need it has really been a successful model for us.”
Arrests in the park decreased after the ambassador program started and other policy changes were made, going from 44 arrests in 2018 to 19 arrests in 2020. But in 2021, arrests at the park increased to 41.
That increase may have been because of an increase in vulnerable people spending time in the downtown during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
“It’s no secret that the pandemic exacerbated what was already a mental health crisis in this country,” Thoeming said. “Homelessness has spiked up in just about every city and community across the country.
“So we’re faced with, I don’t want to say a different set of challenges and issues today, but it’s certainly morphed into something that we didn’t see in 2019,” he added.
Aaron Terrones, support services director at Willis Dady, agreed, adding that between the pandemic, the derecho and civil unrest, the last few years have been far from ordinary.
“During the pandemic with the library closed, the ambassadors’ role was a lot different from what it was before,” he said. “It was making sure people had water and had access to those basic needs and were still getting connected to their housing case managers.
“We really had to shift gears and meet people where they were at in the downtown area.”
The stakeholders who made the original recommendations for Greene Square continue to meet each month to address ongoing issues and make recommendations, Thoeming said.
The metro economic alliance, inspired by the Greene Square ambassador program, has hired a few people — who have experienced homelessness or been through Willis Dady programs — to work 10 to 20 hours a week with the downtown cleaning and maintenance team.
“We’ve been working with Willis Dady on what we call the cleaning ambassador program since 2020, and that’s been a big help,” Thoeming said.
“We look at it as a win-win-win. It helps our team. It’s more support to keep our downtown core looking good. It’s a win for folks that are looking for good, hard, honest work, and it’s a win for downtown.”
Wes Shirley, the library’s support services navigator for Willis Dady, said the ambassador programs are an important steppingstone for people who have experienced homelessness.
The ambassadors, he said, usually have found homes, and they also can help direct people who are still experiencing homeless.
“The people that we’re hiring are pretty well integrated into that community, so they already have those relationships, in a way that I don’t have,” Shirley said. “It’s a different kind of relationship.
“It’s good that they have access to somebody who they know has experienced homelessness, who knows what it’s like to be homeless, but also is seen as a resource in the community.”
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