Exclusive: Urban Alchemy on security, racism and scrutiny

Former S.F. homelessness chief Kositsky answers key questions for first time

Jeff Kositsky may know more about the intersection of homelessness in San Francisco and the much-discussed nonprofit Urban Alchemy than anyone else. He was The City’s first homelessness chief, and now leads Urban Alchemy’s expansion elsewhere as the organization’s director of advancement.

The organization’s unique approach to its work on the streets has its employees simultaneously engaging with downtrodden residents with a smile and cup of coffee, while choosing not to intervene in some low-level crimes.

Their presence on San Francisco streets is meant to improve neighborhood and shelter security, but Urban Alchemy practitioners are not trained or licensed as security guards. They are not armed and prepared like a police officer, but can experience many of the same volatile situations.

The nonprofit saw explosive growth in San Francisco and other California cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, managing The City’s growing network of safe sleeping sites and its efforts to clean the Tenderloin District.

Urban Alchemy’s surge to prominence has raised questions about its role that falls somewhere between security (the nonprofit would argue safety), social service provider and custodian.

Following an exclusive, much-cited interview with Urban Alchemy CEO Lena Miller, The Examiner asked Kositsky previously unanswered questions about whether Urban Alchemy acts as security guards, Urban Alchemy’s expansion and his departure from The City. He also spoke freely about his thoughts on racism and what he sees as media bias against the organization.

The Examiner: Let’s start with the much-discussed issue of whether Urban Alchemy acts as security guards. One of your practitioners got shot, and Urban Alchemy has pulled in a lot of taxpayer dollars with an unusual approach that not everyone is familiar with. Can you understand why taxpayers, journalists and others want to know more about the security aspect?

Kositsky: Yeah, I definitely understand why. And I think it’s because the model that we’re using doesn’t really have words that are readily recognizable to most people. We are part of this bigger movement of community-based safety organizations that are providing alternatives to policing that everybody you know, at least in San Francisco and other progressive cities, are clamoring for.

All providers of shelter, housing, safe sleeping sites are responsible for safety and security of their guests. Because Urban Alchemy, like many other providers, has chosen to not use security guards, it was framed as the organization providing security. This does not mean Urban Alchemy is providing the same services as security guards.

The Examiner: The word security, as you know, shows up in some of the Urban Alchemy documents on the city side. Do you think people at city agencies understand the difference there? Or are they not sure what they’re getting when they’re contracting?

Kositsky: No, I think they understand, and here’s why. Actual security has to go through a whole different process with approved vendors. So when I was at HSH (the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing), and we needed to, like, renew a security contract, it was a whole different procurement process that is overseen with more scrutiny.

The Examiner: On the human side, what about the difference between security guards and your folks? When a de-escalation of violence has to happen, you don’t always have a choice of how a situation is going to proceed. Are your folks in danger?

Kositsky: I would say no more danger than anybody else who does this kind of work. If you look at incident reports from shelters or any number of programs that serve this population, you’ll see that incidents occur all the time. And staff are all trained on de-escalation. It’s just part of the work when you’re dealing with people who are so traumatized and so vulnerable, and sometimes are struggling with mental health or substance use issues.

The Examiner: What about training? You folks are hiring and growing very fast. Do you have the time and the bandwidth to train everyone so that they and the citizens they work with are safe?

Kositsky: We have really good training. We don’t put folks out into the field who haven’t been trained. And then they also get 40 hours of on-the-job training. Does that mean that we don’t have staff that make mistakes and do the wrong thing? Well, of course we do. I mean, if you put cameras on any organization with 1,100 staff, you’re going to find people who screw up.

I think when you have an organization that’s being run by primarily Black men who have been in prison for 10 or more years, you’re held up to a different level of scrutiny. When I’m feeling dark about the world, that’s what I think.

The Examiner: Can you say some more about that?

Kositsky: I’ll tell you what I hear some of our staff saying who are Black men who have been incarcerated. They feel that they’re under a different level of scrutiny, compared to what some people will call “downtown nonprofits.” I think it’s hurtful.

(Editor’s note: The Examiner corroborated Kositsky’s statements about Urban Alchemy employees’ feelings about racism with African Americans employees at the nonprofit, who agreed with his comments. “I think it’s definitely true,” said Kirkpatrick Tyler, deputy chief of government and community affairs for Urban Alchemy. The issue is not overt, such as the use of racial slurs, he said, but systemic doubt that a Black-run organization of previous long-term incarcerated people can succeed. “A lot of what we experienced as racism is the overlooking of the larger work that we’ve done in favor of a ‘gotcha’ mentality to say, ‘Yep, I knew Urban Alchemy was a hoax. I knew they couldn’t do it.” The Examiner is exploring those topics with further reporting for an upcoming article.)

The Examiner: What about diversity at the executive level of Urban Alchemy?

Kositsky: There’s seven executive officers, seven members of our C suite. Of those, three are African American, one is Asian and three are white. Not the best reflection of the agency, but I would say better than most nonprofits and something that we’re working on. But also, right below us, the next level of management is 97% of people of color.

The Examiner: You were the head of homelessness for The City. Can you talk a little bit about what worked and what didn’t work with The City, and why you wanted to be part of Urban Alchemy’s approach instead?

Kositsky: I’m working on a book about this, which is very self-deprecating. Nobody wanted that job, and for good reason. No one wants to deal with this issue in kind of a startup environment in the government. And finally, Mayor (Ed) Lee asked me, which I guess I’m not embarrassed of. I said yes. I was proud of myself for being brave enough to do it. I told him that I was only going to do this until he was out of office because my heart’s really in the nonprofit sector, and I don’t think I have the right temperament for government.

Jeff Kositsky, center, now works with the nonprofit Urban Alchemy after heading up the S.F. Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for four years and running the Homeless Street Outreach Team for 18 months as the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Urban Alchemy)

Jeff Kositsky, center, now works with the nonprofit Urban Alchemy after heading up the S.F. Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for four years and running the Homeless Street Outreach Team for 18 months as the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Urban Alchemy)

The Examiner: You worked for The City as Urban Alchemy grew. Now you are on the Urban Alchemy side. Is there any conflict of interest there?

Kositsky: Based on city regulations and the Good Government Guide (a city document advising officials on the law), anyone who has responsibility for contracting with an organization cannot go to work for that organization for one year after ending employment with The City. I was well within my rights to take the job at Urban Alchemy. I also want to point out that I don’t have anything to do with Urban Alchemy’s San Francisco operations. I focus on fundraising, our back-office infrastructure and our national expansion efforts.

The Examiner: You’re taking off for Austin, Texas, to set up shop there. Where else are you expanding?

Kositsky: We don’t want other communities to think that we’re trying to muscle our way in or using the media as a marketing tool or anything like that. So we want to keep that quiet. But before I was even considering working here, I knew that Urban Alchemy would want it to expand nationally. They felt that they had to come across a model and a way of engaging with people in a culture that was really beneficial.

The Examiner: Let me give you a chance to respond to something toward the end of your role as the head of homelessness for The City. Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he didn’t think you were the right person to run the department anymore. What’s your response to that?

Jeff Kositsky: I was rude to him. I mean, not to say he wasn’t being rude to me, too. But I was rude to him, and he got frustrated with me and made that comment. I’ve known him for many, many years and have a lot of respect for the man. We sat down and we made up.

The Examiner: Do you think the press has been unfair to Urban Alchemy?

Kositsky: Yes. … Well, I don’t know. I’ve been doing this work for a really long time. And I like the media and I’ve always paid a lot of attention to it. When I went to work for The City, I knew I was stepping into a sh*tstorm, and that was my choice.

But people who sign up to work in the nonprofit sector, I guess, just don’t expect that kind of scrutiny. I’ve just never seen a nonprofit get this kind of attention and scrutiny, and we’re not really capacitated to deal with it. This stuff has followed us into Austin. It’s affecting our fundraising. It’s really also affected morale.

We’re trying to do things that people want. We’re trying to provide alternatives to the police. We’re trying to help to keep the streets safe and clean. We’re trying to provide shelter for homeless people.

The Examiner: But don’t you think the big, no-bid contracts also bring scrutiny, and the fact that you folks are working on such an important issue in The City?

Kositsky: That’s the other thing that I find frustrating, as a former bureaucrat. Everybody said, “You guys move too slowly.” So we came up with a process to move faster. And then when we did that, everybody’s complaining about that. I mean, if you have to go through the bid process, that could take, you know, three to six months to get a contract signed.

No one’s getting rich doing this stuff. I mean, give me a break. You’ve got a bunch of people doing some of the hardest work in the world. People being threatened. It’s really draining. What do you think the conspiracy actually is?

jelder@sfexaminer.com

ashanks@sfexaminer.com

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