Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Downtown ‘red’ means ‘ready to serve’

Clean and Safe Team members are there to help

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Wheaton Safe Team members Said Said and supervisor Kevin Glenn patrol Reedie Avenue east of Georgia Avenue on Monday afternoon. Members of the Safe Team will escort residents to their cars, and Clean Team members take care of landscaping and other maintenance.
Said Said was walking along Price Avenue on Monday when he got a call on his radio. A fellow Wheaton Clean and Safe Team member had been asked by a passerby for directions to the nearest U-Haul facility, and within seconds, Said was able to help.

Giving directions is one of Said’s duties as he and other team members patrol the streets of Wheaton’s central business district.

Said and other team members wear bright red shirts, black pants and a badge. While Said is not part of law enforcement, he is trained in handling emergencies, security and customer service.

‘‘I can honestly say about this job that it carries over,” he said. ‘‘I was a nice person, but when you’re doing this every day, [you’re] used to calling people ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’”

Courtesy is an important part of Said’s job. He accompanies people walking from their businesses to their cars or from the Metro to a parking garage. He also visits businesses to make sure owners, employees and customers are aware of his presence.

In his two years on the Clean and Safe Team, Said has seen the area improve. Public drunkenness in the daytime has become rare.

‘‘Some days are boring here,” he said.

On a gray afternoon, Said strolled among those walking to and from work, others waiting at bus stops and teenagers enjoying the last days of summer before the burdens of school and homework became reality again. There were no public drunks, no people hiding in the alleys, but instead mostly working people who were going about their lives.

As Said walked near the corner of Ennalls and Grandview avenues, he noticed a homeless man he often sees in Wheaton. In the winter months when shelters are open, he tries his best to offer the homeless a place to stay or eat, but in the summer months if people are not doing anything illegal, there isn’t much he can do.

‘‘I try to help, but they don’t want the help,” he said.

The Wheaton Clean and Safe Team began in 2001 to combat ‘‘nuisance crimes” in the area such as public drunkenness, urination and graffiti. The team has since increased its numbers and expanded its hours from five days to seven days a week.

The county employees are split in two groups – the Clean Team is in charge of landscaping and cleaning up Wheaton, while the Safe Team is in charge of security and concierge services. Members can travel on foot, on bike or in a vehicle while working to improve quality-of-life issues people often complain about in urban areas.

The county funds the Wheaton Clean and Safe Team, which has a budget of about $1 million.

Eddie Man, a 21-year-old college student who is also on the Safe Team, said that while most of his duties including escorting people, answering questions and sometimes even jump-starting cars, one of the most fulfilling aspects of his job came when he and another team member helped a woman after she accidentally locked her keys in her running car while her children were inside.

Supervisor Kevin Glenn said he has been with the Safe Team since it began. What had been an informal group of people learning how to clean up Wheaton, talk to customers and find their way around the busy downtown has turned into a well-run organization, Glenn said.

‘‘When I first started here, Wheaton was kind of rough,” he said.

Glenn said the ‘‘red shirts,” as they are known by the workers and residents, enhance the feeling that downtown Wheaton is safe.

The Clean and Safe Team is primarily concerned with educating the public, Glenn said. When members see things that are illegal or criminal, they first try to talk to people and let them know what they are doing is wrong before calling the police.

While having a background in security is helpful, Glenn said any person hoping to become part of the Clean and Safe Team must have people skills. While new employees are always trained, Glenn said members attend classes, workshops and seminars throughout the year.

Residents and business owners say that the Clean and Safe Team has been a tremendous asset.

Marian Fryer, a longtime resident in Wheaton and member of the Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee, said she advocated for the Clean and Safe Team years ago and thought it was one of the best services the county could provide downtown Wheaton.

‘‘[The county] has been very adamant about getting people who are caring and take pride in what they do,” she said. ‘‘That is key in this area.”

Lenny Ung, owner of Hung Phat Grocery Store on Fern Street, said that he is proud of the county for providing the team for downtown Wheaton and feels safer knowing they are around.

‘‘All these guys are great,” Ung said. ‘‘They care about the businesses and care about the community.”

Clean and Safe Team

The Wheaton Clean and Safe Team is available for services such as giving directions, offering escort, providing vehicle assistance and removing trash and graffiti. To contact a member 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, or 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, call 240-777-8120.