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San Francisco is counting on this organization to save its streets—but is its approach legit?

Urban Alchemy employees pick up trash, while homeless people gather belongings in the Tenderloin. | Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

For Urban Alchemy’s Executive Director Lena Miller, the organization’s rapid San Francisco expansion is just the beginning. She envisions eventually helming a nationwide homelessness organization that provides direct services and also acts as a consultant to cities looking to set up similar outfits of their own.

“Basically like a franchise model,” Miller said in a radio interview last year. “We can help them recruit. We can give them the training. We can give them the structure.”

Her group has gone from providing monitors for Department of Public Works toilets and supplanting the police in various capacities Downtown to potentially taking on new roles as a San Francisco 911 first responder team and the operator of a network of government homeless camps in Portland.

Urban Alchemy is “moving the needle where nobody else is really able to move the needle, which is because they’re doing the same old, same old,” Miller said. This expansion, in Millers’ view, is owed to an innovation that came out of her own study of trauma. Traumatized people do a better job of understanding other traumatized people, she and her staffers say.

To that end, Urban Alchemy prioritizes hiring ex-convicts who have served decades in prison after being convicted of serious crimes, which can include murder.

But Miller’s core philosophy—that long stints in prison can equip a person for handling crises in the streets—is a selling point that seems to run counter to mainstream psychology.

Lena Miller, executive director of Urban Alchemy | Courtesy Urban Alchemy

Prison is characterized in stacks of psychological research papers as a mental illness incubator where violence, deprivation and nihilism distort social skills and undermine inmates' social compasses, sometimes resulting in a PTSD-like disorder called post-incarceration syndrome.

Symptoms of post-incarceration syndrome include aggressive and antisocial behavior, a permanent, unbridgeable emotional distance from other people, panic attacks and recurrent nightmares, according to numerous studies and surveys.

Montrell Dorsey, a former director of workforce development with Urban Alchemy, said that people getting out of long sentences in all-male prisons don’t get proper training and that allegations of harassment and assault by workers are not adequately addressed by the organization.

“They don’t understand how to engage with women,” Dorsey said, describing one Urban Alchemy supervisor accused of assault who was merely shifted to another post. “You have some people who are very inappropriate.”

But where others in the nonprofit services sector and psychologists see prison trauma as debilitating, Miller—who recently received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of San Francisco—believes that struggling to survive on the inside requires expertise in an encyclopedia’s worth of social cues. These types of skills, she says, equip Urban Alchemy workers for interacting with people who are having a traumatic time on the street.

Urban Alchemy’s Lovett Milton and Bryan Whiley work on toilets in San Francisco. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Kirkpatrick Tyler, who is in charge of government and community affairs for the organization, describes the past prison experience of Urban Alchemy workers as parallel to the "story of every single superhero in every comic book that you've ever read—that they have a traumatic experience, [and] they have to make sure that traumatic experience has a sustainable transformational impact on who they are to their core."

Helping with that transformational experience takes extensive preparation, said Lola Whittle, president of the Urban Alchemy board of directors.

"There's a lot of training," she said. "They're not just getting out of prison and putting them out there."

Miller says this is the kind of fresh approach public officials have been drawn to when deciding to hire Urban Alchemy to provide security services for public toilets, street corners, BART elevators and homeless facilities, in addition to picking up trash.

“When you're trying to prevent theft, who do you hire? You hire the boosters,” Miller said during a September 2021 Human Rights Commission meeting. “You have to understand why people do the things they do, what it looks like and the process. We prioritize hiring long-term offenders.”

For longtime Bayview resident Yvonne Dillon, the nonprofits Miller has founded have been a blessing for the area because they provided jobs for people who had a hard time finding work.

Dillon said nobody else had achieved what Miller had in Bayview and Hunters Point. "And I've been here for 87 damn years in this community," she said. "She has taken these young men, embraced them, given them a job to do when they get out of jail."

But there have been very notable setbacks in Urban Alchemy's projects in the Bay Area and beyond that call into question the efficacy of this approach.

In Sausalito, where Urban Alchemy was hired to guard a tent encampment occupied by former residents of boats that had been confiscated, media reports described meth use, pot dealing and sexual encounters and assaults involving Urban Alchemy staff. In San Francisco, a shooting early last year highlighted workers' role in the line of fire as private patrols paid with city funds.

Bayron Wilson, Urban Alchemy’s director of operations, says the Sausalito allegations were false, and that the organization did a successful job helping the campers, who had just been kicked out of floating homes anchored in Richardson Bay.

Robert Milton, a supervisor at the Department of Public Works, the agency that funds much of Urban Alchemy’s work, said seeing people who served long sentences holding on to a steady job sends a message.

“These guys were able to come out and talk to young guys and explain to them that they want to do something different,” Milton said, adding that it can be inspiring “when I see these guys in uniform, just guys out there working.”

Urban Alchemy and sanitation workers at Skid Row in Los Angeles. | Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

In Los Angeles, Urban Alchemy was hired to provide services to homeless encampments. In reality, the nonprofit provided cover for city efforts to roust people from their tent sites, according to activist complaints documented in a UCLA research paper describing Urban Alchemy workers as a “surveillance group,” an “arm of the police” and “a mercenary outfit intent on exploiting their workers’ own precarity as feel-good media narratives.” 

After being hired to guard and provide other services to homeless encampments in the Los Angeles Skid Row neighborhood, workers became associated in the city’s progressive media with a decision to evict homeless people from a downtown park.

Los Angeles officials, however, have praised Urban Alchemy for providing services to an often difficult-to-help population. “Thanks to everyone for continuing to meet the moment with persistence, grit, resilience, and compassion,” wrote Mayor Eric Garcetti’s homelessness czar in an April 2020 email chain involving Miller.

Rubin Williams, 73, on the job for Urban Alchemy in Los Angeles. | Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Wilson says Urban Alchemy workers don’t fit the definition of patrol officer or security guard, and therein lies their advantage.

“Security is something totally different. You’re using force,” he said. “We don’t have weapons, mace. We don’t have a badge. We don’t have anything that says ‘Security.’ We call ourselves practitioners.”

When asked about the stories of assault, harassment and misdeeds at various projects, Miller said they paint an inaccurate picture and distract from the good Urban Alchemy has done. 

“Nothing that we have [achieved] is based on corruption or cheating or something unethical or immoral, or illegal. The only reason why we're where we are is because we get to work. Nobody else fucking wanted to do that,” Miller said. “We found a turd and turned it into gold. A turd. Not even base metal. Not lead. A fucking turd.”