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‘They Were Outnumbered’: Urban Alchemy Workers Seek Help from Police
Monday, May 16, 2022

‘They Were Outnumbered’: Urban Alchemy Workers Seek Help from Police

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.  

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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 [email protected].
  • This is why we have police. I am all for non-violent options for negotiating certain street infractions like homeless encampments or some mental health crises’. But let’s be pragmatic when it comes to dealing with real criminals. Anyone willing to step out of civic bounds to navigate a space where the rules of doing business are often enforced with violence needs to be met with the business end of our justice system, and not the academic fantasy of someone’s thesis on restorative justice. Not because we should inflict violence on the people who inflict violence on our city, but to ensure that civil servants are protected as they carry out our law enforcement.

  • Urban Alchemy had better have good insurance, that’s all I can say. Someone should do a story on what remedies their employees have in the event of a serious injury or death.

  • Both the mayor and Urban Alchemy’s leadership have consistently refused any kind of transparency about UA’s role in the Tenderloin. The mayor offers this organization “no bid” contracts for the dual roles of street cleaning and law enforcement in SF. The city has paid organizations for both of these roles; now taxpayers must support this questionable organization as well.

    The mayor has utterly failed in enforcing the law around drug dealers and cleaning up the streets. Urban Alchemy is out of its league. The lack of transparency stinks. The mayor and this organization must come clean about its role and, especially, where the money goes.

  • Amen!!!
    An organization reaps that kind of money in a few years?
    You have to wonder…

  • Urban Alchemy has made a tremendous difference on the streets they are stationed and are greatly appreciated. The community thanks and loves them for being the presence needed to clear out our streets. Yes, I’m sure they’ve had issues- they work from 7 am. to 7 pm. and are bound to run into a few issues given what they do for our community but they do what hasn’t been done yet. More crime in south of Market area? Hire more Urban Alchemy workers!! Worried about too many drug dealers? Arrest them!!

  • Urban Alchemy is making an impact on the streets but they are not law enforcement. The dealers many undocumented and really don’t give a second thought about pulling a gun or knife. The Urban Alchemy employees have live streaming go-pro cameras that are connected to the nearest police station.

  • UA is operating a security business without a license or training. This puts their innocent and unsuspecting team members at risk for substandard pay. One must ask the question: Where is all the money going to from this “no bid contract?” State agencies like BSIS have done nothing unless you complain about UA’s illegal activity. Then they’ll investigate you! It is the Lack of over site and regulation of UA that provides “shadow money” to unknown persons at the cost of the UA team members and San Francisco’s citizens under the guise of a nonprofit business. It is this nonprofit status that further allows UA to “limbo” under State and local regulations.

  • UA mainly just bullies homeless. They carry their prison attitude so proudly and it reflects in their work. Breed is in on the code and so they get funded. It’s a brother thing

  • As a person who has worked for Urban Alchemy, I say we put ten toes down to bring a community back together by keeping the piece. We go over and beyond the call of duty to do what no one else has done before. We do it with an empathetic spirit because we have all suffered some kind of fate that has led most of us down some dark streets. We pulled ourselves out. Many will judge the job we do without force. Many won’t understand and that is alright. Yes most of us have been incarcerated but we don’t use that as a tool for bad but a tool to let our unhoused population know we’ve been there. People will be quick to judge what they think they know. Walk a mile in our shoes and see if you feel the same after the rubber on the bottom of the shoes are fading. Ten toes down to help those that can’t help themselves while keeping the peace. I love UA and I applaud Dr. Miller for putting together a team that was built on having a past history and using it for the betterment of others.

  • What is needed is some good cops taking it upon themselves to go and bust these guys no matter what the chief or the DA says just do it and the citizens will stand behind you. Just do it and do it right. Its your job and who knows that better than you!!!!

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