A star-shaped pattern of blood left over from a Tuesday night shooting near the Asian Art Museum might not have been notable for a city that had 222 victims of gun violence last year, except the blood came from a man whose job is tamping down violence in the dangerous San Francisco neighborhood.
The unnamed shooting victim works for Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that employs a cadre of reflective-vest-wearing “ambassadors” to help patrol dangerous streets in the Tenderloin and some adjacent neighborhoods. They have become ubiquitous in central parts of the city since Mayor London Breed announced last year that Urban Alchemy workers would play a key role in an ambitious public safety plan.
But Tuesday night’s confrontation raises questions about whether the program’s managers are risking staff members’ safety by having them do the work of security guards, who would normally require a license from the state. The incident involved an unarmed ambassador being shot while trying to stop two men from selling drugs, according to an Urban Alchemy director who spoke to The Standard on the condition of anonymity.
The police department has provided no details about the shooting other than noting that the person was transported to a hospital.
Urban Alchemy Executive Director Lena Miller did not respond to repeated requests for comment made by email, phone and text message. The mayor also declined to comment.
California 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.” Licensure for security guards requires training as well as FBI background checks.
San Francisco has its own law requiring registration of security guards, though city records indicate it is not being enforced. Under California law, charities “organized and maintained for the public good” are exempted from requirements that private patrol companies obtain licenses.
In response to an inquiry, the California Department of Consumer Affairs said in a statement: “exemption does not always extend to the employees if the employees are providing security services.”
Urban Alchemy, in documents filed to qualify as a “public benefit corporation,” or charity, states that the organization “employs former long-term offenders as ‘Urban Alchemy Practitioners’ to provide clean and safe public facilities in urban areas.”
City records reviewed by The Standard show that Urban Alchemy representatives and city officials have both acknowledged that the nonprofit’s staff members are providing security services that fit the state’s definition of activities that would normally be regulated.
In one email exchange from January 2021, Miller told a San Francisco official that she didn’t want an organization other than hers to provide security at a city-run homelessness encampment in the Tenderloin.
“If you’d like UA to take this site on, we must be the sole operator managing,” Miller wrote. “We would not want [outside] security.”
A database of licenses managed by the state Bureau of Security and Investigative Services showed no filings from Urban Alchemy.
Urban Alchemy grew out of a nonprofit city contractor called Hunters Point Family and began operating under the name Urban Alchemy in 2018. A key aspect of its operations involves hiring formerly convicted felons, with the idea of rehabilitating people while making it easier to recruit staff. Training materials explain that formerly incarcerated people have a “trauma informed lens” that gives trained “alchemists” the kind of emotional intelligence necessary to de-escalate potential confrontations.
Miller wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of San Francisco on the topic of addressing traumatized people who might harm themselves or others on the street. The organization has taken care not to publicly use the terms “security,” “guard,” or “patrol,” instead giving staff the title of “practitioners” or “ambassadors.”
Security experts contacted for this story said the city’s contracts with Urban Alchemy show the nonprofit is clearly providing security services at low-income housing and other public facilities, homeless encampments and most of the streets in the Tenderloin district.
The Standard interviewed five Urban Alchemy employees in the Civic Center area who said they were providing security services, echoing the communications found in city records.
Business owners in the embattled Tenderloin neighborhood have celebrated Urban Alchemy and its workers' presence for pushing out drug dealers while keeping an eye out for other crime during the day. But the nonprofit’s impact is most noticeable when staff leaves after 7 p.m., said Max Young, the owner of Mr. Smith’s bar on 7th and Market streets.
“At 7 p.m., it changes, and you can see the dealers come back,” Young said. “The Urban Alchemy program has been really successful in taking over these blocks.”
Urban Alchemy has won a string of new contracts for services in San Francisco over the past 18 months as Mayor Breed, the UC Hastings law school and downtown merchants all announced millions of dollars in funding to improve street safety.
Urban Alchemy’s most recent financial records filed with the state show $8.3 million in government funding in 2019, before the latest round of SF contracts.
Most recently, San Francisco officials granted Urban Alchemy an $18.7 million contract to run a homeless shelter in Lower Nob Hill. The contract came under scrutiny from neighborhood residents who questioned the nonprofit’s capacity to provide rehabilitative services. But the contract was eventually approved with the promise of around-the-clock public safety.
Urban Alchemy is “going to be providing neighborhood outreach and security,” said Supervisor Matt Haney during a Budget and Finance Committee hearing on the shelter. “I think there’s actually a lot of advantage in that Urban Alchemy is uniquely able to do all of those things.”
Jerry Hill, the former state senator behind California’s current security guard laws, says he pushed for greater regulation of security companies after reviewing situations where untrained or unstable guards engaged in confrontations that ended in violence.
A search of records for the hundreds of San Francisco security guards whose licenses have been suspended reveals a rogues’ gallery of violence, fraud, secret criminal histories and other violations. Unless security companies, their controlling offices, managers and staff are licensed, California has no recourse to remove bad actors from the job.
“To me, it would be ludicrous not to register a security guard if they are acting in that role,” Hill said.
The Standard has found no evidence of misconduct on the part of Urban Alchemy workers.
Security guards are “put into these potentially dangerous situations, and they need to know proper use of force, how to properly conduct a patrol, what to document and how, because those descriptions are often used in court cases,” said Alex Haddox, owner of Security Training Center, a southern California school for security guard licensing. Allowing a private patrol operator to work without licensing “puts the company at risk, the patrons at risk, and it puts the guard at risk.”
Matt Smith can be reached at [email protected]
David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]