S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (2023)

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Heather Knight

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S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (13)
S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (14)

It’s easy to spot the ever-expanding team of Urban Alchemy workers patrolling San Francisco’s Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods and wonder what exactly they do. Sometimes, it seems like they just stand around, shooting the breeze, amid the misery.

For a quick, in-your-face answer, walk one block down Eighth Street, traveling south from Market Street to Mission Street.

On a recent afternoon, the west side of the block, abutting a shuttered Chase Bank, was filled with people, many of them either using drugs or passed out. Piles of trash dotted the sidewalk. Yet the east side of the block was clear. No signs of drug use. No trash. In the sunlight, the sidewalk literally sparkled.

Why the stark difference? One side was in Urban Alchemy’s boundary of responsibility, the other was not. The contrast showed the big difference the team can make in its assignment to keep the area’s sidewalks safe and clean, but also that so-called solutions in a city grappling with a twin drug and homelessness crisis too often involve pushing the misery around.

S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (15)

Yet there’s evidence that shows the nascent, yet very promising work of the street ambassadors spans far outside that one block. New data from the nonprofit’s past 12 months roaming Mid-Market and the Tenderloin is encouraging: 134 overdoses reversed, 41,575 trash bags filled, 78,494 needles disposed of safely.

Some data categories are a little more difficult to parse, but still point to success. The nonprofit counts 1.2 million “positive engagements” such as giving lost tourists directions or providing homeless people with information about services.

It counts 310,000 “inviting space interventions” such as workers speaking up when they see people urinating or defecating, littering or being very loud. It counts 45,000 “de-escalation interventions” like spotting street violence or someone in a mental health crisis and calling paramedics, the Homeless Outreach Team or the police.

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Sure, the data is self-reported and an outside study of the group would be more useful. Lena Miller, Urban Alchemy’s founder, said one is coming. A soon-to-be-released study by a local university, which she didn’t yet have permission to name, will show crime has dipped in the areas of San Francisco in which Urban Alchemy works, she said.

Beyond the data, the biggest point of pride is the sense of calm Urban Alchemy practitioners, as they call themselves, have helped bring to the city’s core during the daytime— and the fact that much of the chaos and danger returns when their shifts end at 7 p.m. No, they won’t reverse the city’s feared “doom loop,” but they can help people feel safe and protected while, one hopes, city officials find long-term solutions.

In her Market Street office, Miller said the data from the past year tells her, “Even in the situations that look the bleakest and the most intractable, you can transform them for the better.”

S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (18)

Count the Human Services Agency building on Harrison Street as the latest potential target for that kind of transformation. An all-female Urban Alchemy team — dressed in pink — has just begun staffing that location with the aim of serving women fleeing domestic violence and sexual abuse.

That new addition brings San Francisco’s commitment to Urban Alchemy to $33 million in contracts. They also staff library bathrooms, a shelter, a tiny home village, BART elevators and a Bayview vehicle triage center, among other city facilities.

The nonprofit is expanding fast in San Francisco, a city yearning for a non-police response to its problems, but it’s also grown elsewhere since it started in 2018, with more than 1,000 workers in six cities today.

Yet despite its growth and good work, much of the chatter about Urban Alchemy hasn’t been good. Some blast its workers for doing too little as blatant crime, particularly drug dealing, occurs right next to them. Others blast it for doing too much and becoming a quasi-police force; its dumb decision to outfit its workers in camouflage doesn’t help in that regard.

Urban Alchemy should also require workers to wear name tags and provide an easy way for the public to report problematic behavior.

Moreover, some recent stumbles have been alarming. A former worker was charged with attempted murder after police said he shot a man during a break from his job at a Post Street homeless shelter in November. Urban Alchemy quickly fired him and said the incident had nothing to do with the nonprofit.

The organization has also faced lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, unpaid overtime and making people move along without cause. An Urban Alchemy worker at a tent encampment in Sausalito was photographed in shorts, a tattoo of “88”— a code for “Heil Hitler”— visible on his right calf.

Opinions among those living and working in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market are split. Del Seymour, who founded Code Tenderloin, which offers job training to struggling people, said any employment organization has bad apples, but called Urban Alchemy “an amazing project” that gives formerly incarcerated people job opportunities and helps people in the neighborhood feel safer. He said he’ll park his car only on blocks patrolled by Urban Alchemy — that way, it probably won’t get broken into or stolen.

S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (19)

But Joe Wilson, director of the shelter Hospitality House, said Urban Alchemy thrusts people from prison onto the streets too quickly and without enough training, creating a shadow police force in a neighborhood that needs more compassionate responses.

“They’re getting too big, too fast, without the accompanying investment in organizational infrastructure,” he said.

Miller said she doesn’t think her nonprofit would get so many bad headlines and so much blowback if it wasn’t composed of mostly Black men who are formerly incarcerated — even though it’s providing the second chances and the unarmed, non-police presence San Franciscans say they’re behind.

“I think we create a cognitive dissonance for people,” Miller said. “These are the people who are supposed to hold our community together? These are the first responders? … It’s like, ‘We can’t trust these guys because we know it’s just a matter of time before their true criminal nature comes out.’ ”

She said she thinks there’s also some jealousy that Urban Alchemy has made a bigger impact on the city in a couple of years than some nonprofits that have been around for decades.

After spending an afternoon with Wayne Gatlin, 37, an Urban Alchemy supervisor who’s worked for the group for a year and five months, and some of his colleagues, it seemed clear the nonprofit is far from perfect, but does have a positive influence in a neighborhood that desperately needs help.

He spoke easily and kindly to all sorts of people, asking a nervous-looking older couple who’d just seen “Pretty Woman” at theOrpheum Theater whether they liked the show and directing them to BART. He jovially told a dazed-looking man in U.N. Plaza to pull up his pants and guided another troubled man out of the street.

He urged three people doing drugs near the farmers’ market to move along, telling them to use — you guessed it — on the sidewalk alongside Chase Bank. Moving them elsewhere might seem frustrating and fruitless, but because the city refuses to opensupervised consumption sites where people can use drugs off the streets, there didn’t seem to be any good options.

“It’s a little hectic, but it’s cool. I like it. I like giving back to the community,” Gatlin told me. “We get bad looks sometimes, but we also get, ‘Hey, thank you for being here. We love what you guys do.’ ”

In Civic Center Plaza, one of his co-workers manned the gate to a playground, ensuring only groups that included children went inside. Another co-worker, Troy Barnes Jr., said he gets frustrated by “the stigma that we’re a gang” because they’re a group of mostly Black and Latino men.

“It’s a lot of ex-convicts, and that’s publicly known,” Barnes said, adding he considers the group “the pre-first responders,” the ones who whip out Narcan when somebody is overdosing and call paramedics or break up assaults and call police.

“I believe in Urban Alchemy,” Barnes told me. “I have a 4-year-old, and for him to be able to walk around in San Francisco safely, it means a lot to me.”

Gatlin believes in it too, saying he’s spent time in jail but didn’t want to go into details. Urban Alchemy won’t let sex offenders join its crew, but welcomes other formerly incarcerated people with jobs paying $21 an hour with full medical, dental and vision benefits.

S.F. street ambassadors won’t reverse a ‘doom loop’ on their own. Here’s why we still need them (20)

“This is rejuvenating people’s lives,” he said. “They get a chance with this to get employed and start their life. They can reinvent themselves and start something new.”

On Market Street, Jimmy Espinoza sported a tattoo of the city skyline on the back of his bald head, featuring a cable car, City Hall and Sutro Tower. He said he’s reversed many overdoses and intervened when a man robbed a tourist at knifepoint, prompting the assailant to drop his weapon and run. (“It’s work,” Espinoza said. “I ain’t got time to be scared.”)

But the best part of the job, he said, is when he and other practitioners walk schoolkids to safety, handing them off to each other block by block.

“I think that’s f—ing badass,” he said, a big grin spreading across his face. “That’s my favorite thing.”

Reach Heather Knight: hknight@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @hknightsf

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