Downtown nonprofit workers tasked with keeping the streets safe are now styled in military-esque camouflage uniforms that have caught some locals off guard.
Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that deploys safety “ambassadors” to the Mid-Market neighborhood and other parts of San Francisco’s Downtown, began outfitting its workers in camouflage jackets that some see as counterintuitive to the charity’s stated purpose of building trust with the community.
“They don’t feel like they’re there to be part of the community,” said Lea McGeever, who lives near UN Plaza, where Urban Alchemy ambassadors are often deployed. “I don’t know why the camo is needed in Downtown.”
McGeever said that the uniforms bring back traumatic memories of her father’s military deployments, echoing the views of other local residents who said the camouflage motif made them feel less safe.
In addition to describing the sartorial choice as "five seasons ago"—he pointed to Madonna’s outfit at the 2017 Met Gala—Supervisor Matt Dorsey noted that the camo print is intended to help people blend in, not stand out.
“It’s a little disquieting,” said Dorsey, who represents the Mid-Market neighborhood. “The importance of community ambassador programs like Urban Alchemy and others is that they'd be high visibility. When the uniform is camouflage, you're by definition going for low visibility.”
Urban Alchemy is a fast-growing nonprofit at the nexus of public safety and homelessness, having grown from monitoring public bathrooms to overseeing key sections of downtown in a swath of city contracts.
The organization holds $62 million in contracts with San Francisco and has expanded its reach to Sausalito, Los Angeles and Austin.
Some residents have applauded Urban Alchemy's success in clearing sidewalks during the day, but it’s also been the subject of criticism for providing security services without proper licensing and accusations of harassment and assault by its workers.
In a statement, Urban Alchemy defended its uniform choice and pushed back on claims that the camo print makes ambassadors less visible.
“Camouflage is a ubiquitous and widely popular design pattern that people from many walks of life choose to wear,” the statement read. “In the middle of a large, dense city, we are confident that this individual clothing choice does not make anyone—including our practitioners as they help their neighbors—less visible.”
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