Urban Alchemy cleans up the streets while putting formerly incarcerated back to work
Urban Alchemy is a non-profit organization hiring the formerly incarcerated to make streets cleaner and safer, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The company uses a strategy of hiring people who are struggling to find jobs, and in turn reducing the role of armed police officers when it comes to addressing homelessness, says the May 22 story. Urban Alchemy has grown to 1,100 employees, with projected revenue of $55 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, said the report.
“What we’re trying to do is just make spaces safe and clean and raise the vibration, so to speak, in areas that in the past have been dirty and scary, particularly for people who are vulnerable,” said Lena Miller, co-founder and CEO of the organization.
The employees are making an attempt to get their own lives on track after incarceration. Most of them are people of color and some have been homeless, notes the story.
They might be instructed to remove tents from sidewalks so children can walk to school, or clean up drug paraphernalia because of the frequent drug use that occurs in the city, the article reports.
Some critics complain that the workers are not licensed security guards, and that the organization is outsourcing government functions to non-profits, which hinders evaluation of whether city spending on similar services is achieving results, said the Chronicle.
The company has been growing rapidly, but this doesn’t come without challenges. Two of its employees have been shot in San Francisco since February.
Louie Hammond, a former gang member who served 21 years in prison for attempted murder, is Urban Alchemy’s employee training chief.
Hammond works with new hires to role-play scenarios that may take place on the streets. In one scenario, he got within one foot of a new hire’s face and said: “What are you going to say when someone comes at you like this and calls you a snitch-ass … police?”
“I’ll say, ‘Have a good day, sir,’” a trainee responded.
The trainees laughed, but the answer was along the lines of the employees’ goal, of how to avoid confrontation.
“If you have no self-control, no discipline, or choose to take it personal, this is not a job for you,” said Hammond.
Despite this training, some community members have criticized Urban Alchemy employees of escalating situations that take place on the street. A homeless person named Arthur Bruce accused an Alchemy worker of hitting him during an argument, which sent him to the hospital for a wrist injury, according to the story. Bruce criticizes Urban Alchemy, saying it was a “recipe for disaster” having people with checkered background “acting as authority figures over the most vulnerable citizens.”
One recent morning in the city’s Tenderloin district, Hammond and his crew walked past drug users and dealers, asking people to clear out for the kids headed to school, and directing people to linkage center that helps connect people to housing. Several Alchemy Workers gathered around Sarah Snider, who injected fentanyl and cocaine into her thigh before packing up to leave, the Chronicle reported.
“Some of these guys have power trips, and they get pushy, but these guys here had the right thing going now. I’d rather see Urban Alchemy than cops,” said Snider.
An hour after making sure Snider had cleared out of the area, Hammond pushed a woman in a wheelchair while she was screaming and refusing to move. He took her into a coffee shop, bought her a sandwich, and prayed with her before taking her to the linkage center.
“Engaging in conversations and encouraging folks to care about their neighborhood is a much more effective approach than forcing people to move or having police write tickets to those who cannot afford to pay them,” Urban Alchemy told the Chronicle