How Urban Alchemy Turns Homelessness Into Gold

How Urban Alchemy Turns Homelessness Into Gold

How Urban Alchemy Turns Homelessness Into Gold

Cities are pouring money into the nonprofit to manage encampments and patrol the streets where unhoused residents congregate. Not everyone is happy about it.


San Francisco—The headquarters of Urban Alchemy is on the ground floor of a luxury building between a shuttered Whole Foods and a Supreme store near the city’s Tenderloin district. Its windows display a decal with one of the nonprofit’s catchphrases: “Once you see us, you can’t unsee us.”

UA “practitioners” or “ambassadors” guard corners and patrol Market Street, respond to emergency calls relating to homelessness, and monitor tent encampments and shelters. Some wear sunglasses and balaclavas with their uniform: a camouflage jacket emblazoned on the back with the group’s all-seeing-eye logo.

That eye, according to UA, represents the “inner wisdom” and “powerful spirit” that every UA practitioner “must be armed with” to survive the “dark places” that they enter doing their work. UA promises to treat people with compassion, to “de-escalate” and ensure that “people are no longer at risk of being assaulted,” and to foment a “spiritual and social transformation” that is “no less miraculous” than the alchemical transformation of base metals into gold.

“Instead of lead,” UA says on its website, “we seek to transmute human suffering. Instead of gold, we create peace.”

Urban Alchemy describes itself as a job-creation program for formerly incarcerated people. It was cofounded in 2018 by Lena Miller, a PhD in psychology who has spent decades on a mission to heal the affliction of violence in urban communities. She says that the traumas that the formerly incarcerated have experienced increase their emotional intelligence, giving them a unique ability to combat the homelessness crisis facing American cities. “The harsher the circumstances,” Miller told us, “the more you hone that ability.” Individuals with these emotional skills “stop using [their] cerebral cortex” in stressful situations and instead use “that middle part of your brain, or I would even say spirit,” to “analyze and communicate with people.”

Miller started the nonprofit with $36,000 and a contract to manage public toilets in San Francisco. “You can’t polish a turd,” she says. “Well, we polished that turd.”

In five years, Urban Alchemy has amassed at least $62 million in contracts, mostly with cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sausalito in California and Austin in Texas. UA boasts that its budget has increased some 500 percent in the past two years. It says it employs 870 practitioners, 94 percent of whom have been incarcerated or unhoused. And UA wants to take its model nationwide. “We’re the Google or Instagram of social services,” Miller says.

She envisions the group going “from city to city,” revolutionizing the industry. Until recently, UA’s website said it planned to expand to three more cities by summer 2025—including Portland, Ore., where it’s at the center of a plan to corral the unhoused population into massive city-sanctioned encampments.

Miller attributes UA’s success to the effectiveness of her model. “We should be excited,” she says. “You got long-term offenders who’ve done 30, 40 years in prison. They’re the alternatives to the police. And furthermore, the police and the police unions are with it.”

But not everyone is pleased with Urban Alchemy’s explosive growth.

The number of people sleeping on streets in the United States continues to increase. Between 2015 and 2020, the unsheltered population surged by 30 percent, and San Francisco has one of the highest rates of people sleeping in the streets. In 2022, there were more than 580,000 unhoused people in the US, 40 percent of whom were unsheltered. In San Francisco’s 2022 point-in-time count, a kind of census of homelessness, volunteers tabulated nearly 4,400 unsheltered residents in the city.

Like many other cities, San Francisco deals with visible homelessness by “sweeping”—in other words, dismantling tent encampments and forcing unhoused residents to move to another area. There’s a shortage of shelter beds across the region, and it is illegal in West Coast states to sweep anyone for whom no bed is available. The Coalition on Homelessness sued San Francisco over this, and a judge temporarily banned sweeps. Still, unhoused people say they are routinely coerced into moving by city officials, police, and Urban Alchemy ambassadors, and they tell us that sweeps remain the main technique that the city uses to manage its unsheltered population. In 2018, after Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, visited San Francisco, she determined that this approach constituted “cruel and inhuman treatment” that violated multiple human rights.

It’s no wonder, then, that civic leaders in San Francisco and elsewhere are looking for new ways to confront—or at least to appear like they’re confronting—the homelessness crisis. UA skeptics like Kaitlyn Dey, a Portland-based homelessness researcher, argue that politicians use nonprofits to keep their promises to reduce interactions between police and homeless people without substantially changing the system. And to the average liberal city dweller, having a nonprofit administer the sweeps makes that work appear more humane than when armed cops do it. Working with groups like UA also reduces transparency—internal UA e-mails, for instance, are not subject to FOIA requests—insulating local officials should problems arise.

Critics say Urban Alchemy is policing public space, while UA says its workers, who are not state-licensed private security guards, “provide complementary strategies to conventional policing and security.” Even if UA calls them “ambassadors” or “practitioners”—and even if, according to one former employee, the nonprofit stressed to the ambassadors that they were not “security guards” in internal communications—a search on LinkedIn shows employees describing themselves as security guards.

“It sounds good on paper,” says Couper Orona, a street medic who was unhoused in San Francisco from 2016 until recently, but the reality is that UA is “another Band-Aid instead of fixing the actual problem” of homelessness. “It’s a security force that can bully people into doing what they want—but it’s OK because it’s not the police.”

Kirkpatrick “KP” Tyler, UA’s chief of governmental and community affairs, says that this was not the case. “We treat people with dignity and respect,” he says. Unlike existing encampments and shelters, which are often filled with abuse, Urban Alchemy provides a “safe space.”

Miller predicts that “at some point, this whole shelter service is going to evolve to where it gets to be competitive, where shelters are competing to be the best—like a Yelp review.”

Since its founding, Urban Alchemy has faced dozens of allegations and at least six lawsuits alleging civil rights violations, physical and sexual harassment, and wage theft. Critics, including homelessness advocates, unhoused people, and former employees, allege that some of the practitioners have exacerbated the trauma of homelessness by dealing hard drugs, making sexual advances on vulnerable individuals, and harassing and assaulting people on the streets.

Most recently, in December 2022, a UA shelter employee named Joseph Perry was charged with attempted murder after he shot a man during a 15-minute break, after which he went back to work. He was fired for not showing up to work the next day. UA says it became aware of the crime only later; Tyler told us that the incident was drug-related and “probably still would have happened…maybe sooner” if Perry hadn’t had his job with the nonprofit.

Earlier this year, Orona sat down with Kelsey, an unhoused man who had spent time living in a tent city run by UA next to the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, for the first of a series of video interviews with unhoused individuals to record stories of Urban Alchemy’s maltreatment of unhoused people in San Francisco. “The guards are constantly making it hard on us living there,” Kelsey says on camera. “They steal from us. If anyone tries to speak up, like I’m doing, they bully us. There’ve been accounts of violence against people from the workers.”

In one such story that Orona recorded, a visibly shaken woman named Autumn Keller describes being harassed by UA employees after she and her boyfriend sat down to rest on a flight of stairs. She says UA ambassadors told them to “get the fuck upstairs.” When Keller and her boyfriend complained about their treatment as they were getting up to leave, one of the men “punched me in the face,” Keller says, “and completely annihilated my boyfriend,” who can be seen in the video with a bloody lip. “All the other Urban Alchemy people [were] watching—laughing at us.”

In another video testimony, a man who says his name is Zachary recounts being confronted by two UA employees as he was going up the stairs into the UA-run Ansonia Hotel, where he was sleeping. One of the employees, he says, grabbed him around the throat and threw him off the stairs, causing him to sprain his finger.

Another interview, with an older man named Angel Hamador, had to be filmed under a freeway far from any UA presence, because he said was afraid of the practitioners. “I have been in multiple situations with Urban Alchemy where they have bullied me, aggressively, in gang-like tactics,” Hamador says. He stresses that he had already “been physically assaulted twice” by UA ambassadors before the incident he was about to describe happened.

On January 28, Hamador was near the Whole Foods at Eighth and Market—which has since been closed, with the company citing worker safety—when he saw a UA ambassador telling a couple eating lunch in a taped-off section of the sidewalk that they had to “move right away.” The ambassador was “one of the biggest men I’ve ever seen in my entire life, 300 pounds at least and 6-foot-something,” he recalls. Hamador says he told the couple they legally did not have to move. The “Urban Alchemy gentleman” then began to “aggressively address” Hamador, getting “as close as you can to somebody without [their] having to move” and telling him he needed to back up. When he didn’t, Hamador says, the UA ambassador “headbutted” him—“and it was not a love tap.” His nose started to bleed, and Hamador began “freaking out,” shouting about his rights and pleading for someone to call the police. But the police, he adds, “drove by me while I was screaming in the street, bleeding from my nose, no shoes on. The police drove right past me.”

The UA ambassador, Hamador says, hit him again before being stopped by another Urban Alchemy employee, who calmed Hamador down while the first man continued to lob insults. “Even when it was the good guys,” Hamador says, “all I could see was those [UA] coats all around me.”

“I couldn’t sleep for two days,” Hamador continues, “because I [thought I] had a concussion and was seeing double.” He eventually went to a hospital, where he says he asked to make a police report but was told to leave before he could do so. The ambassador “attacked me in the streets in broad daylight in front of everybody,” he says, crying.

The UA staffer who beat him was suspended, Hamador says, but he remains terrified of the ubiquitous camo-jacketed ambassadors. “I don’t want to tell on nobody, get nobody in trouble. But this can’t keep happening.”

Orona says that “at least nine or 10” women have complained to her about sexual harassment by UA employees. And Ty Kyser, a former policy director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says she’s consistently harassed by UA employees: “There’s not a day that I walk through the Tenderloin that I don’t get catcalled by an Urban Alchemy person.”

UA’s Tyler told us that he wished more people would come to the nonprofit with their specific complaints, “because then it would make it easier to respond.” But he doubted the veracity of these claims. If most of the allegations against UA practitioners were true, Tyler says, there would be a paper trail of reports filed with the city, but there isn’t one. The police would also speak up, but, Miller says, they are “the main ones” asking for more of a UA presence. Without Urban Alchemy, she adds, “there would be uprisings where we are.”

Tyler and Miller dismiss much of the criticism of their organization as part of “a serious campaign” by a “national network” to “undermine” UA, motivated by racism and classism and “rooted in folks who benefit from keeping things the way that they are.”

When pressed as to who that national network might be, Miller and Tyler refused to answer, saying the organization wanted to avoid spreading negativity. “You name me one person or group who ever did anything that changed society that didn’t get their ass kicked in the process,” Miller says. “Who am I to complain? Look what happened to Jesus.”

Some advocates say that Urban Alchemy doesn’t provide adequate training for its workers. UA’s website says it provides class instruction in emotional intelligence, harm reduction, self-care, and de-escalation as well as in CPR, first aid, and the use of naloxone, in addition to on-the-job supervision.

Tyler says UA continues to engage with and assess its ambassadors once they’re “in the field.” Each person is supposed to be paired with another, more experienced partner, and workers are “surrounded with the community of support of other practitioners.”

But one former Urban Alchemy employee—who asked to remain anonymous—reported receiving just three days of virtual training before starting as an ambassador in Los Angeles in 2021. “You can’t just take anybody and train them on a video and then stick them out there and expect that they’re going to be fine,” the former employee says. “Watching people fall apart in front of your eyes, day in and day out—some people forget that they’re supposed to be a positive influence…. I’ve seen [workers] selling drugs to the [unhoused] people, assaulting people, sitting there drinking and smoking while they’re on the job.”

“You’re representing something that’s supposed to be great,” the former UA employee adds, “but you become part of the problem.”

The former employee says that Urban Alchemy also needs to do a better job screening its employees—something made more difficult by the nonprofit’s rapid expansion—and pay better than the “pennies” many workers earn in high-cost-of-living areas. (UA says its practitioners are paid at least $21 an hour.) The former employee—who quit UA after only a few months but still works in homeless outreach—says the unhoused people that they interact with “have nothing good to say” about Urban Alchemy.

Joe Wilson, the executive director of Hospitality House, a community center and shelter serving the Tenderloin, Sixth Street Corridor, and Mid-Market neighborhoods, worries about compounding trauma if workers are thrown into conflict without the skills they need. “The training you may have gotten on the yard at San Quentin stands you in good stead in that environment—[but] that’s not a community-building model, that’s a survival model.”

Hospitality House, Wilson says, builds trust and relationships over time by running over 300 hours of training per year for its staff—many times more than UA provides. “Any community-based organization,” he adds, “must at its core have a fundamental obligation and allegiance to the community in which it exists.”

Since 2019, the Coalition on Homelessness—alongside other advocates, service providers, and unhoused individuals—has worked to create an alternative response for 911 calls related to homelessness.

From 2015 to 2020, Bay Area police killed 110 people. In almost half of these cases, there was no evidence that the victim had been committing a crime, and none of them resulted in an officer being prosecuted. Over that same period, the number of people killed by police across the US rose to record levels. The roughly 30 percent of chronically homeless individuals with mental health conditions are especially vulnerable to police violence; between a quarter and a half of all fatal police encounters involve an identifiable mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

What the Coalition on Homelessness and its partners came up with was the Compassionate Alternative Response Team, or CART, which would respond to complaints involving unhoused people and could transport individuals to services using community-based teams of mental health professionals and people who have experienced homelessness, all without involving the cops.

The funding was supposed to come from the budget of the San Francisco Police Department, a diversion that would have aligned with Mayor London Breed’s unfulfilled post–George Floyd promise to reallocate $120 million from the SFPD’s budget. But Kyser and others who pushed for CART say that Breed let the $2.75 million needed for the program sit unspent for over a year and even “refused to acknowledge CART publicly.”

Then, on January 31, the city awarded the contract to implement CART to Urban Alchemy and not the coalition of nonprofits that helped develop the program. Wilson, of Hospitality House, was livid: “It’s incredibly frustrating to land here after several years of planning” meant to “lift up a different model of what public safety could mean in communities that are often under siege and frankly enslaved by this law enforcement model.” Upon hearing the news, Laura Valdéz, the executive director of the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services and part of the coalition that did not win the contract, told the San Francisco Chronicle that UA had a “history of triggering and inflicting trauma on unhoused people.”

Urban Alchemy believes it was chosen to take on the challenge of CART because of its experience running a similar program, Crisis and Incident Response Team Through Community-Led Engagement, or CIRCLE, in Los Angeles, which launched in 2021.

Urban Alchemy seems set to continue its rapid expansion. having established a presence throughout California, in September UA opened up shop in Texas, where it took over management at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless after the previous contractor “essentially collapsed,” according to Austin City Council member José Vela. Despite Urban Alchemy’s scandals, the city took what Austin’s homeless strategy officer, Dianna Grey, calls a “calculated risk” and gave the group more than $4 million to run the shelter for around a year.

Next, UA is expanding into Portland, Ore., where Mayor Ted Wheeler is pushing through a controversial plan to combat unsheltered homelessness.

In early 2022, the city proposed sweeping all unhoused residents into several huge encampments, with up to 500 people in each, managed by the National Guard. Following widespread criticism, the city then “spent the year tailoring the plan and working on their rhetoric to ultimately make [it] politically viable,” says Dey, the Portland-based homelessness researcher. Now the plan is to create six encampments, each holding up to 150 unhoused people. At the end of last year, Urban Alchemy submitted a bid to operate as many as five of them; in March, Wheeler announced the location of the first site, which UA will run. The city plans to ban unsheltered outdoor homelessness except for these government-sanctioned encampments.

Advocates, experts, and unhoused people in Portland have expressed concerns about the prospect of UA-run megacamps. Andy Miller, the head of Our Just Future, a local shelter provider, says operating a shelter on that scale is “difficult work.” Maintaining a healthy environment while navigating the trauma of those sheltering there, he says, is no easy task.

“There’s going to be chaos,” predicts Vince Masiello, an unhoused resident of Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2), a safe rest site founded during the Occupy movement that eventually found its way to the corner of the parking lot near the Moda Center, where the Portland Trail Blazers play.

At R2D2, around two dozen longer-term residents stay in tiny homes, with additional communal shelter space for 40 more unhoused folks to bed down for the night. The village is autonomous, which means the residents—who have received de-escalation training—set their own rules and resolve conflicts democratically in weekly general meetings. “Even in our humble space,” Masiello says, “conflicts come up.” Trying to “scale that up” to a camp with more than 100 people, he continues, will be a disaster—one that he and other unhoused people at R2D2 say they fear.

“The idea that they’re actually going to successfully manage all the sanctioned encampments and force every single homeless person into them? I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Dey says. Such an approach, compounded by UA’s lack of training, is “going to implode.”

There’s also the question of cost. In its bid, UA predicted that it would cost over $5 million a year to operate a single 150-person encampment—or about $34,000 per person per year.

That’s still cheaper than some UA-run projects. UA ambassadors monitor San Francisco’s first tiny-home village, which had its lease renewed for another two years in February. Each cabin at the UA-patrolled site costs the city just shy of $80,000 a year. (In contrast, Portland’s R2D2 is run by an independent nonprofit without any city funding, in large part because the residents police themselves.)

Dey calls these expenditures “ridiculous.” “Every year,” she says, “we watch various bureaus serving essential functions begging for scraps. Meanwhile, the city is [doling] out hundreds of millions for the police and contracts like this, which serve a very similar function: to control the use of public space, remove homeless people, and attempt to sweep the problem out of sight. But homelessness will not go away, and people will continue to suffer.”

UA’s Tyler readily admits that “we’re not building enough permanent housing and affordable housing,” but Lena Miller says that what UA has “done is we’ve risen to the call that cities have had.”

She jokes that “maybe at some point, Urban Alchemy will get big enough and powerful enough where we make a bunch of developer friends and we buy up a bunch of land and we become permanent housing developers.”

Until then, Urban Alchemy plans to “stay in their lane,” which critics say is tantamount to a private police force targeting the homeless. That lane, according to Kyser at the Coalition on Homelessness, continues to widen as Democratic mayors find ways to abandon their promises to defund the police while shrouding their policing measures in social justice language.

As Kyser puts it, Urban Alchemy is “obviously not an alternative to policing—it is alternative policing.”

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