San Francisco is expanding downtown security patrols despite fears that violent confrontations involving employees of private contractor Urban Alchemy will increase after one of its guards went to the hospital with a gunshot wound last month.
Security experts have expressed alarm that the nonprofit, which has received tens of millions of dollars in contracts from San Francisco, could be exploiting a loophole that exempts charitable organizations from having employees receive standardized security training and background checks. In the next two months, Urban Alchemy intends to have its San Francisco workers patrolling most of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, known for its concentration of drug dealing and violence.
Fernando Pujals, deputy director of the Mid-Market Business Association representing merchants in the area, said in a public meeting Wednesday that further expansion will bring greater danger to Urban Alchemy employees, who perform security work even though the company’s name does not show up in a state database of licensed guards. “There’s a lot of demand on our program to continue to expand into areas that have become really intense,” Pujals said. “We're feeling that we're coming up against the brunt that to continue to expand outwards without forming a better foundation of a contiguous zone would escalate tension and potential violence, both for the community and practitioners.”
Mayor London Breed awarded the non-profit Urban Alchemy an $8.8 million grant to blanket the downtown area in August 2021. Urban Alchemy’s 2022 budget shows the nonprofit receiving more than $43 million in total contract and grant revenue from the city—up from just under $36,000 in total revenue during 2018, the year it was founded. The budget projects $35 million in wage expenses during the fiscal year ending June 30, with the operation carrying $1.6 million in liability insurance.
Urban Alchemy, which boasts of hiring people who had previously been incarcerated, pays its practitioners $17.50 an hour, according to the organization’s contract with the San Francisco Public Library.
Maurice Belle, a former Urban Alchemy employee in Los Angeles, told The Standard that patrolling as a “practitioner” is more hazardous than ordinary security guard work.
“There are shootings, there are stabbings, we are ducking and running all the time,” Belle said.
Belle filed a lawsuit against Urban Alchemy in June, claiming he and his co-workers were denied rest breaks.
As San Francisco has awarded Urban Alchemy increasingly hefty contracts, the scope of their role is expanding. The organization began hiring people to work as bathroom monitors in 2018 and is now preparing to run a 250-person shelter in Lower Nob Hill under an $18.7 million contract awarded by the mayor. The contract received unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors.
But few elected officials in San Francisco seem to know or be willing to talk about the organization’s inner workings.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district is home to the Lower Nob Hill shelter, said he thought it was “mysterious” when the mayor awarded the contract to Urban Alchemy, and he noted he has had relatively little communication with the nonprofit. Peskin lobbied the budget and finance committee to delay a vote on the shelter for a month in early January, citing the need to perform a comprehensive community outreach.
The motion ultimately passed on Feb. 8 after neighbors negotiated for Urban Alchemy to provide 24/7 “patrol” services in the surrounding neighborhood.
Peskin said that he’s aware of the dangerous work performed by Urban Alchemy employees and was unsure if they were qualified to perform the multitude of social services required at the shelter. However, Peskin said other city officials convinced him Urban Alchemy was well-equipped to help manage and patrol homeless facilities.
“It was, in essence, kind of this sole-source selection process,” Peskin said. “It’s a little weird that they didn’t start by putting out a [request for proposals]. … But I’ve been assured by everybody that this is a legitimate way to do it.”
Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that city officials “really believe in the Urban Alchemy mission and we’ve had positive experiences working with them.”
In an interview with The Standard, Cohen denied Urban Alchemy was a private patrol operator—a designation that under state law would bring with it stringent licensing requirements for employees.
Urban Alchemy’s website, public statements and other public-facing materials have notably excluded words such as “patrol,” “security,” or “guard,” instead using terms such as “ambassador” or “practitioner.”
“I would absolutely not refer to it as neighborhood patrol. That’s not what we’re funding,” Cohen said.
Private emails with city officials, as well as city contracts, however, describe Urban Alchemy employees as doing the work of private security guards.
When The Standard showed Cohen contract language stating Urban Alchemy will provide “regular patrol of the site and surrounding program area,” she said: “We don’t talk about it that way, necessarily, but, yeah, I see the contract now.”
“Obviously, anybody getting hurt by community violence is a tragedy, and we will monitor our contract and make changes if need be,” Cohen said.
California law requires an extensive licensing process for operators of a “private patrol service,” which means someone “who furnishes a watchman, guard, patrolperson or other person to protect persons or property, or to prevent theft, unlawful taking, (or) loss.”
Business owners in the Tenderloin have celebrated Urban Alchemy for its success in making the neighborhood safer.
“They're doing a great job of keeping the streets more livable,” Peskin said. “But that comes with attendant dangers that I’ve got my eyes wide open to.”
Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and said that he interacts with Urban Alchemy more than any other organization during a recent Budget and Finance Committee meeting, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Urban Alchemy and the mayor’s office also declined to comment.
Sam Lutzker, a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA who has studied Urban Alchemy for over two years, said that the lack of transparency around the nonprofit is one issue that concerns him most. Though the organization was initially presented as a progressive model of an alternative to police, Lutzker said, Urban Alchemy has become a less transparent arm of the city and the police force.
“Urban alchemy appears to be on a whole new level of opaqueness and lack of clarity,” Lutzker said.
Correction: This article has been updated to note Sam Lutzker is a doctoral student at UCLA.
David Sjostedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org