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City contractor Urban Alchemy denies it provides security services, despite evidence to the contrary

A member of Urban Alchemy works on the corner of Eddy and Hyde Streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin on March 2, 2022. | James Wyatt

Lena Miller, head of a local nonprofit receiving more than $41 million in government contract payments this year, on Tuesday rejected claims that her employees perform the work of security guards. That’s an important assertion given there is no evidence that Miller’s group, Urban Alchemy, or its employees have the state-required licensing for this kind of service.

“We are not security guards, and we make it very, very clear. We do not do security work,” Miller said, in a question-and-answer article published Tuesday by the San Francisco Examiner.

However, the government agencies hiring Urban Alchemy, as well as its employees and even its official website, assert that the nonprofit provides security services. Security experts who spoke to The San Francisco Standard for a Feb. 28 article had expressed alarm that Urban Alchemy provided private patrol services, even though its employees were not required to receive standardized security training and background checks needed for security guard licenses.

One of the latest examples is in Sausalito, where the city contracted with the nonprofit to help manage a homeless camp in the Marinship area next to the bay.

“Urban Alchemy will provide camp management, security and support,” said Chris Zapata, city manager of Sausalito.

Miller did not respond to text and phone messages seeking comment. She has repeatedly declined to speak to The Standard.

Urban Alchemy’s duties at a San Francisco city-run tent encampment include ensuring “that the site is kept clean and safe (supplanting the external security company),” according to an email message written by Rod Finetti, a city official overseeing homeless programs.

Urban Alchemy’s own website, as of Tuesday evening, said its staff “manage everything from general staffing, maintenance, security, and case management services.” 

A quick search of the career website LinkedIn, meanwhile, shows numerous people saying they had experience as security guards, security managers, or security professionals at Urban Alchemy.

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. In February one of its employees was shot, reportedly as he attempted to halt drug dealing near a tent encampment adjacent to the Asian Art Museum.

Miller herself has taken care not to publicly use the terms “security,” “guard,” or “patrol,” instead giving staff the title of “practitioners” or “ambassadors.”

And in Tuesday’s Examiner Q & A, Miller decried The Standard’s article, where city officials described having hired Urban Alchemy for security work. 

“All that stuff hurts. You know, I’m a human being. I’m just trying to do the work. I’m not trying to get famous. I’m not taking tons of pictures and putting them on Instagram,” she said. “Everybody feels that they have the right to scrutinize you. Everybody feels like you’re fair game. So I mean, it is what it is. I’m a big girl. I’ll deal with it. But no, it’s not easy. And it’s not OK.”