Now Reading
Concerns Grow Over Urban Alchemy Expanding Security Work in Tenderloin
Monday, May 16, 2022

Concerns Grow Over Urban Alchemy Expanding Security Work in Tenderloin

San Francisco is expanding downtown security patrols despite fears that violent confrontations involving employees of private contractor Urban Alchemy will increase after one of its guards went to the hospital with a gunshot wound last month.

Security experts have expressed alarm that the nonprofit, which has received tens of millions of dollars in contracts from San Francisco, could be exploiting a loophole that exempts charitable organizations from having employees receive standardized security training and background checks. In the next two months, Urban Alchemy intends to have its San Francisco workers patrolling most of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, known for its concentration of drug dealing and violence. 

Fernando Pujals, deputy director of the Mid-Market Business Association representing merchants in the area, said in a public meeting Wednesday that further expansion will bring greater danger to Urban Alchemy employees, who perform security work even though the company’s name does not show up in a state database of licensed guards. “There’s a lot of demand on our program to continue to expand into areas that have become really intense,” Pujals said. “We’re feeling that we’re coming up against the brunt that to continue to expand outwards without forming a better foundation of a contiguous zone would escalate tension and potential violence, both for the community and practitioners.”

This map shows where Urban Alchemy is currently deployed in the Tenderloin. In the next two months, the city plans to expand Urban Alchemy’s presence to cover a contiguous zone contained by Mason, Leavenworth, Eddy and Larkin streets.

Mayor London Breed awarded the non-profit Urban Alchemy an $8.8 million grant to blanket the downtown area in August 2021. Urban Alchemy’s 2022 budget shows the nonprofit receiving more than $43 million in total contract and grant revenue from the city—up from just under $36,000 in total revenue during 2018, the year it was founded. The budget projects $35 million in wage expenses during the fiscal year ending June 30, with the operation carrying $1.6 million in liability insurance. 

Urban Alchemy, which boasts of hiring people who had previously been incarcerated, pays its practitioners $17.50 an hour, according to the organization’s contract with the San Francisco Public Library. 

Maurice Belle, a former Urban Alchemy employee in Los Angeles, told The Standard that patrolling as a “practitioner” is more hazardous than ordinary security guard work.

“There are shootings, there are stabbings, we are ducking and running all the time,” Belle said. 

Belle filed a lawsuit against Urban Alchemy in June, claiming he and his co-workers were denied rest breaks.

As San Francisco has awarded Urban Alchemy increasingly hefty contracts, the scope of their role is expanding. The organization began hiring people to work as bathroom monitors in 2018 and is now preparing to run a 250-person shelter in Lower Nob Hill under an $18.7 million contract awarded by the mayor. The contract received unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors.

But few elected officials in San Francisco seem to know or be willing to talk about the organization’s inner workings.

Urban Alchemy workers stand watch on Turk Street in the Tenderloin on March 3, 2022. | Mike Kuba

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district is home to the Lower Nob Hill shelter, said he thought it was “mysterious” when the mayor awarded the contract to Urban Alchemy, and he noted he has had relatively little communication with the nonprofit. Peskin lobbied the budget and finance committee to delay a vote on the shelter for a month in early January, citing the need to perform a comprehensive community outreach.  

The motion ultimately passed on Feb. 8 after neighbors negotiated for Urban Alchemy to provide 24/7 “patrol” services in the surrounding neighborhood. 

Peskin said that he’s aware of the dangerous work performed by Urban Alchemy employees and was unsure if they were qualified to perform the multitude of social services required at the shelter. However, Peskin said other city officials convinced him Urban Alchemy was well-equipped to help manage and patrol homeless facilities.  

“It was, in essence, kind of this sole-source selection process,” Peskin said. “It’s a little weird that they didn’t start by putting out a [request for proposals]. … But I’ve been assured by everybody that this is a legitimate way to do it.” 

Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said that city officials “really believe in the Urban Alchemy mission and we’ve had positive experiences working with them.” 

In an interview with The Standard, Cohen denied Urban Alchemy was a private patrol operator—a designation that under state law would bring with it stringent licensing requirements for employees.

Urban Alchemy’s website, public statements and other public-facing materials have notably excluded words such as “patrol,” “security,” or “guard,” instead using terms such as “ambassador” or “practitioner.” 

“I would absolutely not refer to it as neighborhood patrol. That’s not what we’re funding,” Cohen said.

Private emails with city officials, as well as city contracts, however, describe Urban Alchemy employees as doing the work of private security guards.

See Also

When The Standard showed Cohen contract language stating Urban Alchemy will provide “regular patrol of the site and surrounding program area,” she said: “We don’t talk about it that way, necessarily, but, yeah, I see the contract now.”

“Obviously, anybody getting hurt by community violence is a tragedy, and we will monitor our contract and make changes if need be,” Cohen said.

California law 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.”

Business owners in the Tenderloin have celebrated Urban Alchemy for its success in making the neighborhood safer. 

“They’re doing a great job of keeping the streets more livable,” Peskin said. “But that comes with attendant dangers that I’ve got my eyes wide open to.” 

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and said that he interacts with Urban Alchemy more than any other organization during a recent Budget and Finance Committee meeting, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Urban Alchemy and the mayor’s office also declined to comment. 

Sam Lutzker, a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA who has studied Urban Alchemy for over two years, said that the lack of transparency around the nonprofit is one issue that concerns him most. Though the organization was initially presented as a progressive model of an alternative to police, Lutzker said, Urban Alchemy has become a less transparent arm of the city and the police force. 

“Urban alchemy appears to be on a whole new level of opaqueness and lack of clarity,” Lutzker said.

Correction: This article has been updated to note Sam Lutzker is a doctoral student at UCLA.

David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected].
Matt Smith can be reached at [email protected].
  • This reads like a smear campaign against UA and the organizations that support community-led safety for Tenderloin residents. The author lacks perspective on the REAL issue – which UA is helping to solve – which is that the police have been entirely ineffective in solving the open-air drug market that dominates the streets of the TL and endangers children, families, residents, and business owners. Stop attacking the one organization that has willingly stepped up to the plate on this critical issue and get informed on what is really a threat to our TL residents! The drug trade, drug use and violent crime.

    • Sounds good.
      Private security by law can Only Observe and Report. Ambassadors can redirect individuals to other services.

  • When you ask someone that was in jail to Walk around and support the cops on moving people along for undesirable behavior you make them snitches. Now we have gang members acting like have been given permission to harass the unhoused. Giving people that have no training a fictitious level of authority is going to end up with people treating people like they were in treated as a incarcerated person.
    Urban alchemy is the mayor goon squad exploited because if anything happens they will blame the person instead of system that puts incarcerated people at risk of re-offending because they are supposed to be a buffer between the police and the streets.

  • Yes 🙌🏽 I totally agree with the comment stated before Urban alchemy is a Angel 😇 sent to SAN FRANCISCO keep them we need them Trust ‼️

  • Lo mismo de siempre , si yo sé dónde está el problema ahora ustedes se hacen de la vista gorda , la adónde dinero las misma personas que venden droga están patrullando los que roban quiebran vidrios de carros la misma caca de siempre todo ele condado sabe dónde está el problema la policía todas la autoridades , por el puto tráfico de órganos de humanos saquen a todos los indios de San Francisco si quieren solucionar la situación en San Francisco

  • UA needs to be audited … just one question.. aren’t these people working for UA who were previously incarcerated on probation/parole ?? So how are exactly are they able to be around drugs, drug dealers , police, homeless and crime isn’t this a violation of parole probation so tell me HOW are they allowed to work in this positions that they’re doing. This job violation need looking into PAROLE PROBATION VIOLATION EMPLOYEES aka Urban Alchemy

  • First question I had is why there are a bunch of police officers just drinking coffee by union square, protecting the rich, while the TL drowns in drugs and crimes? Who’s benefiting from this? What’s stopping the city from having the right people tackle the TL and help solve the drug problem? Anyone who says it’s complicated, I’m not convinced. Many complicated matters in life have been resolved with very simple decisions, with consequences of course, but having security guards deal with unstable criminals on drugs, is definitely no way to go. That’s the police’s job, and then you need social workers on the ground to help people with mental health issues. And you definitely need better shelters and free stuff, oh and definitely to cut the chord of drugs even if that will affect people’s rights. Drug use is part os human rights you say? How about when an intoxicated person hits someone, steals, kills, puts people’s lives at danger? Isn’t that considered violation of other’s human rights?

  • What’s their role exactly? A security guard is for private property. A security guard on public property is called a cop. They appear to be neither and both simultaneously? They hold no authority (to provide services or to detain people, etc.), thus no role in the community.

  • First of all, what good are they if they aren’t working the hours from 4pm until 8am the swing and grave shifts. That’s when there are the most problems and violent incidents. Clusters of drug dealers on Larkin & O’Farrell. Larkin and Golden gate. And where are the SFPD when 7th and Market looks like night of the living dead? None of this matters. Homelessness has turned into a buisness here in SF. It’s a revolving door for the homeless. They go from one non profit to the next seeking help. Bandaids. No real solutions or fixes. I have to agree with Governor Newsom. Forcing people into treatment, stop coddling adults. Yeah. When he was mayor we had Care not Cash and it wasn’t all this foolery like it is now. I believe in involuntary commitment. Mentally unstable, addicted people are terrorizing not just the TL but all of SF. It’s ridiculous. And Mayor Breed is a native San Franciscan. I’m highly disappointed in her handling of this mess. But if you dig it’s all attached to money. Hotel executives met with her last year to voice their concerns about crime in the downtown area. And then. Lo and behold she comes up with this state of emergency bs. Puhleeze. Not a damn thing has changed. Start holding adults accountable for their actions. And why are drug dealers getting drug diversion court. That should not be. And yeah. CHESA BOUDIN. he for sure needs the boot. Another disappointment. Prosecute people. The hell. Ima native San Franciscan. It’s beyond sickening what’s been happening the last 3-5 years. I work graveshift in the Tenderloin. So I see it all. Just go on the Citizen App. It’s there too. People need to do the jobs they were elected to do. From the mayor to the board of supervisors. Mostly all these ppl are worried about the wrong ish.

  • There’s a history of organizations like this. They have good intentions, help with employing people and providing services to the community. While at the same time taking advantage of the employees, violating to laws, and embezzling money. Usually the exec director is a friend of the mayor. The small business owners don’t care about the situation, they just want cheap security. And the mayor’s office is looking at the next election. While they re part of the legacy that led to thishuman rights emergency.

  • I don’t think at all that this is reading like a smear campaign or anything other than simply stating facts (all verifiable) and quotes from “other” resources. Having been homeless during the non profit s start in 2018 until a year ago, I’ve had a unique insight as to how this company is ran as well as how it’s”employees” conduct themselves while addressing homeless persons in general. Let me just say, I am far from impressed! Depending on the”practitioners” mood that day, they can and have been anywhere from simply rude to being outright confrontational. And no, I’m not referring to the entire pool of UA employees however, at least a considerable amount. They’re have been times they’ve proven helpfull and times they’ve proven, well let’s just say “otherwise”. Also, I’m all for re-entry programs but to blatantly use obvious loopholes in the system so that those of whom are participating in the re-entry program can be given positions that would’ve been and should’ve been given to those who would’ve been just a bit more qualified… Allowing those same re-entry employees to work in positions that, had those loopholes NOT been taken advantage of would’ve not allowed for those in the “program” to have been placed in. It’s incredibly obvious that this company is providing “security/ patrol” services but not being held to the same rigorous and needed license and training requirements that other companies providing the exact same service ARE being held to. And the fact that this is being done so blatantly in view for all to those who want to see, can see. I believe that UA can be a great help to San Francisco but only if it is required to operate under the same rules and regulations as all others providing identical service’s. This is not a smear campaign on my part and while some, very little, is of my opinion… Most of what I have stated here is straight verifiable fact.

    • As a Security Guard I see their role as more ambassador role then Security. By State law Security Guards are not allowed to interact with the public.

      As a Security Guard I appreciate groups like Union Square red vest and Downtown Community Benefit District blue jacket.

  • Yet again the city bureaucracy farms out the work that should be done by real city employees, i.e. police and social workers, to yet another “nonprofit” that receives millions of city $. The fact that “loopholes” are used while the city government looks the other way is par for the course. Don’t any city employees do any of the real work that is the responsibility of their departments? All they seem to do is issue RFPs and issue multi million $ contracts to “nonprofits” to carry out the work they should be doing themselves.

  • The whole thing sucks. These ex convicts tell people where they can and can’t stand . I thought sidewalks were for everyone. The mayor wasn’t in office a year when she asked the governor to release her brother for throwing a girl from a moving car killing her. I couldn’t get any help when I was being evicted unlawfully. The mayor’s office was too busy. They have millions to throw around though.

  • Wow, another way to waste tax payers monies. Can the city just hire more police who criminals actually fear. Criminals just ignore these Urban Alchemy people, and those urban alchemy people are mostly former convicts, how can you trust them. This is a bad idea.

  • Lmao more free stuff is exactly why SF has such a massive homeless population. 0 consequences for drug abuse, free money AND food stamps given to the homeless means all the vagrants in the country flock to SF for the freebies.

  • Thugs ! I grew up and spent my time enjoying San Francisco I’ve not been there For awhile and won’t anymore till they get back normal get rid of so called security .

  • Stop handing out the $850 a month and shut down those shoot up linkage center and watch crime and “homelessness” disappear. That would also mean no more kick backs to the kick back community. How are these people going to make a real living ? Trading stocks like Nancy ? The mayor will only use cops for protecting Louis Vutton.

  • Ya its a bad combination. I live on Golden Gate and Hyde and for some reason there not patrolling the one block that most needs it. I think the youngsters told them they couldn’t work there. Plus there exfelons and parodies thats not going to work the will be in the mix before you know it. I’m an excon.

  • Totally agree with all the critics of this wasteful taxpayer money. Force the “Ambassadors” and “druggies” to perform real work for a living..

  • This reaks of corruption. No RFP’s using excons as security this would never pass muster. Oh yeah this is SF par for the course.

  • As a homeless person receiving services from the city such as staying at one of the SF safe sleeping sites, I too have a problem with the lack of oversight and training that Urban alchemy has presented. This particular location is manned exclusively by UA. Other tenants and I have been victims of physical and verbal assaults, sexual misconduct and an all together feeling of unprofessionalism. We have also seen our donations, (clothing and electronics from companies and individuals) taken for themselves right in front of us. Complaints have been made to the top of the organization and it seems like nothing has been done or heard. We are so tired of being ignored and treated like second class citizens , like our complaints and questions don’t matter, it’s good to see UA under the microscope finally.

  • Who is pissed off of losing business to Urban Alchemy??? Exploiting a loophole. Whatever that means. Let’s reword that: URBAN ALCHEMY AS A NON-PROFIT AND DOING SOMETHING TO BENEFIT THE COMMUNITY IS KEEPING COMMUNITIES LIVABLE AND THE FORMERLY INCARCERATED ARE LITERALLY GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY.

    I am very familiar with Urban Alchemy and 200% support their presence in the city of LA. As a matter of fact, time to start calling the politicians and rally for Urban Alchemy!!!

  • A $43 Million no-bid, no RFQ, sole source contract?

    Is the city also providing housing to these ‘ambassadors’?

  • I walk through the Tenderloin almost every day. Often see UA staff, whatever their job titles are, at work. They clearly reduce disorderly behavior by people able to not be disorderly and won’t act disorderly when they know someone will object directly to them. Those people are the ones who cause most of the street disturbances that make the TL uncomfortable for others.

    I agree that there should be greater transparency about the type and amount of training UA staff receive. and the kind of support and backup they’re given. But I don’t agree the training requirements by State laws for security guards should apply to them. Those laws are based around security concepts borrowed from police training which is inappropriate for the job UA is doing. As a paramilitary organization, police see force protection and complete control over behavior as their primary mission. Ultimately police training imparts a “us against them” attitude where “us” must control and dominate every public interaction. That training may be appropriate for hostile encounters where a person has intention to do harm. That simply isn’t the situation in the vast majority of UA staff encounters. As for “background checks”, the issue is just what kind of background qualifies/disqualifies a person to do UA job? Traditional background checks have been used to perpetuate a stigma that when someone has offended they are a “bad person” and must be excluded from any respectable role that only a “good person” should have the privilege to do. That idea condemns people to lifelong exclusion and actually perpetuates offences against society.

  • San Francisco, has crime everywhere, to focus on
    the Tenderloin so intensely, will bring about changes.
    I just find it so hard to believe that the SFPD let
    DRUG DEALERS sell dope right before there very
    eyes and keep driving or walking or on their way
    home down Eddy street. Maybe we should give
    Urban Alchemy some SFPD badges so they can
    shot back at these DEMONS called drug dealers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.