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‘They were outnumbered’: Urban Alchemy workers seek help from police

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

On three consecutive evenings this week, a small group of unarmed men working for the city-funded non-profit Urban Alchemy approached people they thought were drug dealers on a South of Market street–only to realize they were outnumbered and in a dangerous situation.

“They have no weapons, not even a baton,” said Police Commissioner James Byrne, relating this story during an April 20 meeting as he sought to bring attention to the dangers faced by Urban Alchemy employees patrolling the city’s high-crime streets.

The confrontations this week involved a group of about seven Urban Alchemy workers, Byrne said, and twice as many apparent drug dealers.

The incidents follow the late-February shooting of an Urban Alchemy worker as he reportedly approached a drug dealer by a city-sanctioned homeless encampment near City Hall that he was helping patrol. 

Byrne said police need to respond more consistently to calls from Urban Alchemy workers. Chief Bill Scott said at the commission meeting that he would look into the incident to “see what, if anything, we can do to make that more efficient.”  

Byrne’s comments underscored the dangerous nature of the work carried out by employees without licenses or special state-mandated training necessary to become official security guards. The city has continued expanding Urban Alchemy’s role in monitoring the city’s most dangerous streets despite rising concerns about the safety and legality of their work. 

Urban Alchemy has repeatedly refused to respond to The Standard’s requests for comment regarding the safety of their workers.  Mayor London Breed also did not respond to a request for comment.  

Residents and city officials have applauded the nonprofit’s success in clearing the streets of open-air drug dealing in the Tenderloin. But others have complained that the efforts are pushing those issues into the surrounding neighborhoods—particularly SoMa. The area has seen a marked increase in shootings and residents have expressed concerns about a rise in drug dealing on the streets.  

In an interview with The Standard last week, Tenderloin police captain Chris Canning praised Urban Alchemy for helping make the streets of the Tenderloin feel safer. But he also suggested the department was reluctant to give Urban Alchemy priority when it comes to requests for assistance. 

They are in “no more or less danger than any other person walking in the neighborhood at that particular time,” he said. “If there's a pattern of particular criminal behavior, then we need to work on ways to address that through the police department.” 

Breed granted Urban Alchemy an $8.8 million contract as part of her Mid-Market vibrancy and safety plan in August 2021. 

The organization’s current budget describes $43 million in total contract and grant revenue in 2022, up from just under $36,000 in total revenue in 2018.  

David Sjostedt can be reached at