‘We’re always at work in the hardest, you know, in the depths of the cities. In the underpasses, the alleyways.’

An unabridged conversation with Urban Alchemy CEO Lena Miller

Urban Alchemy CEO Lena Miller leads a 1,000-employee nonprofit that boomed during COVID as San Francisco gave it multi-million-dollar no-bid contracts to battle homelessness and the street garbage of the Tenderloin. In an interview with The Examiner she opened up for the first time about her organization’s growth, spiritual side and the strain of working in the public eye. This is the full version of the interview.

The Examiner: A lot has been written about Urban Alchemy lately in San Francisco media. Is there a misconception you would like to clear up in particular, or something you would like to say that you feel has not been made clear?

Lena Miller: Sometimes it’s hurtful when people try to draw conclusions or create narratives that aren’t true and always seem to imply that there’s some kind of trick involved in our success, in trying to connect those dots. And it’s hurtful and other people point out that’s not everything — you get a lot more positive things. But to me it’s always been obvious. We’re putting numbers on the board, meaning how many needles we collected, how many bags of trash, how many overdose reversals, how many people that we make sure have safe housing or safe shelter at night, how many showers we give, how many flushes.

We’re always at work in the hardest, you know, in the depths of the cities. In the underpasses, the alleyways. And that work is all documented, everything is documented about us. Every transaction there’s ever been about us is sunshined to everybody because everyone is trying to look for the trick. But I would say we are one of the most visible organizations there is. Our work is on display all the time, which is why I believe we’re under so much scrutiny. You can see our work, and it’s hard work. There’s no trick in it. It’s just really hard.

The Examiner: I’ve been out with your guys. They do work hard. One reason UA has been in the news is big contracts with The City — $41 million in total, historically, according to the Comptroller’s Office. Much of that has come during the COVID-19 emergency processes, and without competing bids, and without recent IRS disclosures from you folks. I know you have the extension, and that that’s all legal. Going forward, how are you going to work with those processes? And continue working with The City?

Miller: Let’s be clear. Every contract we’ve ever gotten before COVID we have competed in a competitive bid process, right? Every single one. Before this, I was known in my community and Bayview Hunters Point as the person you go to when you need a grant or an RFP (request for proposal) written. I’m a very good writer. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. We have other people on staff who are competing in a competitive bid process. It’s not an issue for us. But I think it’s important to understand, during COVID shelter in place, you had a worldwide pandemic. People were scared. They were showing pictures of grocery stores, shelves that were empty. And remember the toilet paper? Everyone was hoarding toilet paper. All these people were dying and and people wouldn’t come out of the house.

But then there was this thing, people saying ‘Oh no, we have X amount of unhoused people on the street. We have to make sure the streets are still clean, that there are public toilets, now that Starbucks and all these other places have closed down. And you have a lot of shelters closing or reducing their capacity and people on the street.’ And The City needed to respond, and quickly. So we had to staff up 15 24-hour toilets, which is 120 people, in five days. That means recruiting, training, getting people onboarded, scheduling, right? A 120 people in five working days to make sure we had toilets for people out on the street.

Then came the SIP (shelter in place) hotels, and The City needed to get people in hotels ASAP. Now, we found out later no other provider would do it. They asked us to do it. We did. Let’s move forward. Let’s move forward to some of the ‘not in the first days of COVID.’ Let’s move to ‘now we’re months in, we’re nine months in.’ You still had people and city departments that weren’t quite back at work. And so they weren’t writing the RFPs. They needed the work done still. And they didn’t have the staff to go through the RFP process. They tapped us and said, ‘Can you keep working? Can we just do an extension? You know, can you just do this?’ We had to perform, and we had to perform quickly when everyone else was sheltering in place, and rightly so. But we did that. In terms of writing proposals, competing in bid processes, I’ve been doing that for 30 years. That’s not a problem for us. But that wasn’t on us.

In terms of our audits, we’re not even 3 years old yet so you’re talking about our second audit, which we did get an extension because we’ve been growing so fast. Before that, Hunters Point Family, we always asked for extensions. But we are on time. There’s nothing out of the ordinary for our timing in terms of our 990s (IRS documents for nonprofits.)

Tents inside the Fulton Safe Sleeping Village run by Urban Alchemy near City Hall. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Tents inside the Fulton Safe Sleeping Village run by Urban Alchemy near City Hall. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The Examiner: Let me ask something that you’ve already spoken to a little bit, but I’m very interested in what you were just talking about with The City sort of needing you at the time. UA is taking on two of the most challenging issues in The City: homelessness and cleaning up the Tenderloin. Are you doing something other agencies don’t want to do? And do you see any hypocrisy in questions about UA’s growth when others have not taken these issues on?

Miller: Let me reframe now. I think we just focused on the work. When we knew our people were going to be left out there alone, you know, and we had the opportunity to step in and make sure trash wasn’t building up on the street, make sure people had access to toilets, shelter, those kinds of things. We stepped to it. We did it. We felt good about doing for people.

There was a time when I had to talk to our staff and say ‘Look, you know, this is going to be hard. This is going to be a grind, you know. We’ve got to move fast. We’ve got to do excellent work, you know. We have this opportunity to do this work.’ And our people, they were like, ‘Let’s go!’ And there was a sense of, I don’t know, like a heroic feeling almost. People were glad to do the work. And that’s what we focus on every day, is just do the work.

Now, how other people process that, how they understand it, I think is more a reflection of where they are. It’s frustrating to me when people try to kind of connect dots, are constantly looking for the trick. How have we cheated to get this big? Because, like you can’t cheat picking up needles, you can’t cheat OD reversals. You can’t cheat flushes. Everything that we do is easily documented. And you can go out and look at it. And it’s just really, really hard work by people who really, really care about this work. It’s fairly simple.

The Examiner: Let me ask you about that growth during COVID. The mayor had to get things done. She had the emergency in the Tenderloin. She has leaned on you folks. She has a glowing testimonial on your website. Do you consider the mayor a friend? And do you think that relationship has helped with your growth?

Miller: Well, I’ve known the mayor for a long time. We come from similar communities. You know, we both are people who served the community. We both worked for Willie Brown, like, 25 years ago. But I don’t hang out with her on weekends. I don’t call her to see, you know, how her latest whatever went. I think there’s definitely a mutual respect. I admire her because I see how she’s been able to navigate things very gracefully. But at the end of the day, I have this relationship with, with so many municipal leaders. We have a glowing review also from the mayor of LA on our website. Designers just didn’t put it on the website. I asked them to, but we have glowing reviews from the department heads we work for. We have glowing reviews from the supervisor or council district people who we have contracts with.

At the end of the day, politicians, department heads, they have to have outcomes because their constituents are pushing on them so hard. There are recall campaigns everywhere. Everyone is angry. People are dealing with a lot of anxiety and stress and a lot of that is projected on people in government. And expecting them to get things done. So I think any kind of positive relationship to reduce it to cronyism is dismissive of the work that actually has to be done. I don’t care if me and the mayor were best friends. She wouldn’t keep me around half a second if we weren’t getting results. It just doesn’t work that way. You know she’s running a city, right? She’s not running an after-school program in the woods somewhere. So, no, I don’t think that’s an advantage. Doing the work consistently, and high quality, now that’s an advantage. That will get you everywhere.

The Examiner: You mentioned Los Angeles. Your folks tell us that you now have nearly as many people in LA as San Francisco. How are you managing the growth, and how did your experience in San Francisco help? Did some of those City Hall relationships help? Were there testimonials or correspondence with LA?

Miller: One thing I realized through this is that everybody talks. So if you’re a department head, if you are anybody who’s really had a position in these kinds of things, homelessness, public works, whatever it is, these people go to conventions, right? They do. They go to retreats, they go to places where they all get together from all over the country, and they talk and they all know each other. There’s groups like the GreenLight (Fund) organization, Bloomberg. There’s a lot of groups that are dedicated to really looking at best practices out there and what is happening in different cities because many of the cities are really overwhelmed by the same issues. This interface between mental health, addiction and extreme poverty, right?

So people are talking, to try to figure out who’s got the best practices in their city. So we come up a lot. You know, wait a minute, we got this thing going on in San Francisco. You should look at it. But interestingly, our work in LA came from two very different places that converged. One, a major homeless advocate, his name is David Busch, that was trying to get more toilets in Venice. And he was like, they’ve got this in San Francisco. You know, you should talk to them. This is who’s doing it. And then at the same time, JCDecaux (a global ad agency) was in LA. And they were telling him like, look, we got this provider out in San Francisco, it’s working, you’re looking at staffing the toilets, this is who you should talk to. We get calls from major cities all over the country asking us if we would come out there to do training, advice, stuff like that because they’ve heard about our work. But yeah, they call each other, of course they do. If we’re doing work in San Francisco and somebody wants to bring us to another city, first thing they do is get on the phone. They talk to whoever is the department head and they say: ‘How do you like working with them? What’s it like?’ So that’s just a part of the process.

The Examiner: Let me ask you about the spiritual side. On your website, you say “our practitioners must be armed with a powerful spirit that communicates with kindness, non-judgment and self-awareness. We strengthen this inner light through our deeds and actions.” Is UA’s mission spiritual?

Miller: I think absolutely it is. Are we religious? No. Do we proselytize a certain belief system to our practitioners, or the communities where we work? Absolutely not. You know, we are practitioners. That means we practice, we practice those principles that you just laid out. But I think anybody who’s really gone through some really, really hard things in life, it’s almost impossible not to, at some point, lean on the spiritual, even if you’re an atheist. At some point, like I said, not the daily mundane struggles and challenges. I’m talking about the real, real tough stuff that gets you to your core.

At some point, people always come back to that spiritual place, whatever it is, however that’s expressed, whether it’s through religion or agnosticism, whatever. And I think that the issues that we’re dealing with, it’s deep. It’s deep out there. It’s rough, and you have to be anchored in some kind of spiritual knowing, or you can’t do the work because it’s too heavy. It will break you if you just try to engage with the work in a meaningful way, just through intellect, or even emotions. And you won’t be able to. You’ve got to pull the knowing, the wisdom, all those things, from a deep, deep well. And unless you’ve been there, you can’t do the work. I do think it’ll break you eventually.

The Examiner: Your folks have mentioned that relationships are your secret sauce. Do you think that spiritual, personal aspect has helped you succeed where some other programs have not?

Miller: I want to kind of get away from, like, comparing us to other programs. That’s not my viewpoint, so I don’t even want to go there. Has it allowed us to experience 300% growth a year? To a certain extent, yes. But it’s not something that we push. It’s not, like, in our training, you know, we say do this process. But it’s an acknowledgment. It’s an acknowledgment that the skills people bring to this work are the direct result of deep and profound pain, and for them to come out of that intact has required tapping into some kind of spiritual well, that they can be OK even in the worst situations. And I think our people are able to move through these situations and still kind of bring that light and love and maintain conversations, even when they’re being disrespected, even in the face of things that may be overwhelming. To look at, to engage with, and still maintain a steadiness, you know, in their compassion and their love and their conversation. I think when you recognize that as a skill, UA has recognized that as a skill that is essential in this work, and I think that’s why we have been so successful.

The Examiner: Is there something about the long-term incarcerated folks who are getting another chance that gives them both the ability to connect with folks on the street who are going through trauma, as you said, but also the enthusiasm to take on work when maybe they couldn’t get a job anywhere else?

Miller: 100%. When I was getting my doctorate, I went in to study trauma. And one of the things that I was blown away by was that a lot of the elements of my personality that I thought were me were really symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). And it’s kind of hard. I’ve done a lot of trainings on PTSD and most people are always shocked at that same thing. But the other part is that you learn you have this incredible gift. And that gift is emotional intelligence. And the way that you build that gift is really through profound trauma and feeling like your life is in danger and having to use your ability to discern and say the right thing so that you aren’t hurt or killed. And the more times you go through that, and the more intense it is, the more you develop that skill. And, unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to develop that skill otherwise. Now when you’re talking about people who’ve been on a level or prison yard where they have guns pointing down at them, and any little thing can get you killed. I mean, our guys talk about just feeling the energy on the yard has changed and when you get to the point, you go beyond body language, beyond micro expressions to reading energy. You know, that’s an amazing skill.

Now, also, you have people who are coming home after 30, 40 years. For the most part, the vast majority of our practitioners committed a serious crime or violent crime when they were in their late teens, early 20s. And they got a life sentence. Now, in order to get released from a life sentence, you’re judged by a panel of four people who go through your life with intense scrutiny, including before the time you spent in prison, why you were in prison, to see if you’ve transformed. Well, not only do most people transform because they’ve done a lot of soul-searching during their time, but biologically people transform when they’re teenagers and young adults to older people. But, by and large, people have thrown them away. When people find out you’ve never had a job, you spent 40 years in prison for, what, murder? Oh, no. And so what we’re able to do is say, there is this profound superpower, you know, that people who have made this transformation possess to deal with our most serious, most challenging issues. And to uplift that, I think, is is amazing, and it gives a lot of people a chance.

I think a lot of folks who spent a lot of time in prison, because this is what I hear a lot, feel like they need to balance the scales. They’ve hurt their community, and when they get out it’s important for them to transform that and and help their community. So you have people who are deeply committed beyond just a regular job to heal communities that were theirs, or like theirs.

And for us, you know, it’s a hack. Because just like the government’s Defense Department, who do they hire? They hire hackers, right? Ross hires people who used to steal, or Neiman Marcus, to help develop the security system. So you want people to know how to heal something. I think it’s important or it works to get people who have harmed it and who understand it. And people are grateful because we give them good wages and a career path. And it’s beautiful. People who have been in prison and people who have not been to prison love working in Urban Alchemy because you get to be a part of this miraculous experience every day.

The Examiner: I talked to somebody who did 30 years for murder, and he worked with you folks. He got some computer training in prison, but also more from you. And he’s now a tech worker who could afford to live in San Francisco. And he said even in liberal San Francisco, those were his words, nobody would give him a chance. I wondered if that’s the kind of success story that you look for, for your employees and how that career path is managed.

Miller: Absolutely. First and foremost, some people think we are a homeless service organization. We’re not. We are workforce development, social enterprise. We just happen to be really good in this area, and most people seek us out because our skill level is so high in this area. I’m from Bayview Hunters Point. We lost a lot of people. You know, a lot. We know up close and personal, in our own families, how difficult it is to get a job in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, if you don’t have certain experiences around education and employment. And there is a lot of discrimination. Yes, in San Francisco, especially in San Francisco. Statistics bear that out. And so our ability to make sure that our men who are coming home and women have the ability to give back to their community with dignity, with pride, to contribute to their households. When before they were dependent on people putting money on their books, to be an earner in their relationship. To buy, you know, a car to get around.

We’ve got folks who purchase homes and, just pride, dignity in what you do. For me, yeah, it’s all about a career path like that. It’s about getting out of poverty, getting out, giving back. But not, you know, not keeping people in the same situation in order to do this work. And so, I’m making sure that at every level our people coming out of prison have got all kinds of skills. And so making sure that every single job in this agency that’s grown to be so big, you know, that people who started at the bottom move to the top. And sometimes they come with the skill, sometimes we need to get them some training classes and experience to get their skill level up. But they have the intelligence to latch on, and they do it. And they’re great, which is why our organization has grown so fast. So, yeah, absolutely. That’s the point.

The Examiner: And with growing so fast and training folks to spread out into LA and other cities, what are you training them to do that’s not U.A.? What are you training them to do to go beyond just working for you?

Miller: Well, we don’t have any training programs, if that’s what you’re asking, outside of U.A. work I mean. You know, 99% of U.A. funds are our contracts, reimbursement-based contracts, right? There’s no fluff. I wish we had more philanthropy. I hope this interview gets us some more, because, man, to be in the middle of the tech universe… But basically, people pay you to do a specific job. And because it’s reimbursement-based, we’re always behind the eight ball in just clearing payroll. So as much as I would like to invest in training people to do other jobs, the only thing we have is to cover what we do. But what I will say is that the experience people get at U.A. is invaluable, because what they learn is like, they learned their incredible value they bring to society.

They learn because you have people at all kinds of levels in the organization. They’re managing HR, financial stuff, scheduling, all kinds of stuff, because they’re managing multi-million dollar contracts and hundreds of people. And we always remind our people of that, you know, go around the room, ‘What’s your contract amount? It’s in the millions. How many people do work for you?’

So these are people who are managing millions of dollars and hundreds of people just under their department. So now when you go and get a job, you’ve got a level of confidence. And you’ve improved, you know, track record, and doing some of the hardest work. And so people right now are always trying to poach our folks because they’re awesome. And they’ve done awesome things. All we can do is try to pay people competitively so they don’t go anywhere.

The Examiner: Well, your folks start at $17.50?

Miller: Well, no, it doesn’t really work that way. We have some, we have a few contracts, that are remnants. When we started with those contracts, I think minimum wage was like $16 or $15. And we said $16.50 because I was, like, I don’t want to be doing jobs for minimum wage and stuff like that. Especially because these jobs are really difficult. So I think we got a few that are leftover where we haven’t been able to negotiate better wages, but they’re not as dangerous. There’s some with BART and the library. For some people, we’ll start there, but not everyone. And most of our jobs pay a lot more than that. The vast majority, 90%.

But a lot of times we’ll have people who are in their addiction on the street and they’ll see us, and they want to join us. You know, they’re like, ‘I want to get a job with Urban Alchemy’ because they see themselves in us. They engage with us and they start saying, you know, “I can do that.” But we see they’re still in their addiction or they’re not quite out of it. Or they’re still living on the streets. And so, a lot of times, we’ll start them off at jobs where there’s a little more supervision. And if they, you know, if they shine, then we have a beautiful escalator, depending on their skill and how you’ve managed what to do at every level. We’re always looking for talent because it’s always growing. So we’re trying to promote the people that do the best work, but probably 10% of our jobs are $17.50.

Bathrooms and showers at the Fulton Safe Sleeping Village. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Bathrooms and showers at the Fulton Safe Sleeping Village. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The Examiner: Are you comfortable sharing your salary?

Lena Miller: No, I mean, why?

Editor’s note: After initial publication of this article, The Examiner reviewed a city document listing Urban Alchemy’s CEO salary as $220,000. Miller declined to comment on the figure, but did respond through a PR rep: “How is it helping society or the story to tell the whole world what I make? What is the purpose, so everyone can decide if it’s enough or too much? It’s just messy.”

The Examiner: You’re growing. You’re the chief executive. You have a PhD. You could be doing all kinds of other things. Why? Why do this job?

Lena Miller: I’m called to do it. I don’t feel that I could be doing so many other things. I feel like you know, I have no choice almost. I always say I’m obedient. What better job is there? You can make a lot of money doing other jobs. I feel like what I have the ability to do is to create, like an artist. They draw a picture or compose a song and they get famous and rich for it. And people may feel a way when they look at the picture or listen to the song. But what we get to do is create things that impact people who have nothing, right? To improve quality of life, for society, in general, right at every level. And that is amazing.

And I’m like, as long as I’m able to pay my bills, what better work is there to do? My cup overflows. You know, most people I know from being a therapist. A lot of people don’t have that feeling. A lot of people are struggling to find their meaning in life or if I go tomorrow, would anyone care? Or just how people feel about you. If I was rich, people may envy me for my Gucci shoes or my fancy car. But to me, it’s like on a different level when people come up to you and they just say thank you. Thank you for their work. And I’m talking about people when I come to the villages, you know. They’ll come up: ‘You’re the CEO! Oh my God! Let me tell you how this has changed my life.’ People with money always want more and then I’ve got to have the boat, and then I’ve got to have the bigger house, and it never stops. But I feel like what I have, that’s the most valuable.

The Examiner: Let me ask you about something that made headlines recently. There was a shooting that involved one of your practitioners, who was shot. How are your folks trained on de-escalation? And are they in dangerous jobs?

Miller: Well, I mean, I think you look at the Tenderloin. You look at the library, you look at BART, you look at all these places, you know. We’re all in downtown San Francisco. If you have a job at the Twitter building you have a dangerous job walking to and from work. Our people have extensive training. I know, yes, much has been made of that, it’s true. It made a good story, got people talking. And while it’s irritating, the insinuations are not legally based. There’s been people doing community safety work forever, and we are not security guards, and we make it very, very clear. We do not do security work.

What we do is, we create relationships and establish kind of an environment, right? Well, we’re all in this together. We’re all here together. And we manage that space. Now we have about 12 different courses for incoming practitioners including de-escalation, first aid, CPR, Narcan, how to use effective communication, emotional intelligence, complex trauma, sexual harassment, and then we also have supervisory training and field training. So yes, that was horrible. That was a horrible thing that happened. We thank God the practitioner’s OK. I don’t think people really understand how hard that was on us. It’s easy to throw rocks and stuff, but, you know, we had to deal with that in a real way, which, I won’t share all of that.

Due to technical problems, Miller’s comments were not able to be transcribed at this point for about one minute. She subsequently provided the following data points for U.A.’s work in the Tenderloin, which were the substance of her comments during this minute and provided as an illustration of the positive impact U.A. has had, she said.

Mid-Market and Tenderloin, July 2021 to March 2022:

Positive engagements: 785,261

Inviting space interventions: 268,187

OD reversals: 113

Needle disposals: 53,311

The Examiner: I did want to ask about Hunters Point Family so that folks understand the relationship between the two organizations.

Miller: I was the founder and executive director of Hunters Point Family for 25 years. The budget started ballooning and it started to be mission creep. And so I launched Urban Alchemy from there so that we would not detract from the work of serving the community in Bayview Hunters Point. It’s just different, plus, you know, I had done that since I was 23 years old, and it just was time to time to do something else. I was a founder who ran the organization for 25 years; time to move on. And so there is no relationship between Hunters Point Family and Urban Alchemy. Nor do I have two salaries. I was trying to figure out why you asked that question. And then I was like, well, for a while the contracts were moving over from Hunters Point Family. We started with them as the fiscal agent because Urban Alchemy alone wouldn’t qualify because you had to have so many, you know, we’re brand new, even though it was all the same everything. So they were our fiscal agent. We had to wait for the contracts to expire and then be able to apply as Urban Alchemy.

I think in 2019 like 80% of my salary was coming from Hunters Point Family because they were serving as the fiscal agent for U.A., and then as U.A. got its first contract from the Strand Theater, and they didn’t have the same kind of requirements. As The City they were able to give us the contract directly, and part of my salary came out of there. And then finally, once we got all the contracts directly under Urban Alchemy, then Urban Alchemy paid my entire salary. And that’s it. I think that was like 2019.

The Examiner: I was asking because U.A. has boomed. You could be working many other places. And ultimately on the 990, it’s going to come out anyway. So I just wondered if you wanted to disclose it.

Lena Miller: Disclose if I worked for both Hunters Point Family and U.A.?

The Examiner: No, just what your salary is.

Lena Miller: I don’t. Yeah, we at Urban Alchemy, we pay. You know, we try to be competitive not only for our executive team, but also for our practitioners. You know, but remember, I’m a regular person. Like, it’s not helpful to me in my personal life at all to put what I made out there for everybody to see. I don’t even do that to our practitioners when I’ve had friends say, ‘How much do your practitioners make?’ You know, I’ll answer them. I say ‘Listen, I’ll tell you off the record. I don’t care if you know. I’m proud of what we pay.’

But, you know, people have friends, family associates, you know. They don’t need everyone counting their paycheck. We all have family members and people who rely on us and friends and all kinds of things. There are scammers out there. I’m doing this work because I have a calling, because I’m good at it. Downside is all this extra attention. I’m a regular person. And I understand everyone feels like they have a right to know, but I’m not an official, you know, I’m just the person struggling to keep it together day to day like everybody else. And I don’t think my life needs to be opened up for everybody to see and scrutinize and have an opinion.

Do I make too much? Do I not make enough? Isn’t the work enough? You know, do I have to be out there in this universe where everyone has an opinion about everything? Like, I know, find out in the 990 then. But you know, I don’t have any way to insulate myself. So no, I don’t think that’s everyone’s business.

The Examiner: “No, f**kery.” It’s a provocative motto, especially as you folks are growing, doing work with governments. Can you tell me why that is, why that is emblematic of what you folks are doing? Why go with with that provocative motto and trademark it?

Miller: I think we deal with the realest issue I would say in this country, in the world. You know? This is where humanity is wrong on every level. And I also think that this kind of gives us a platform for people who understand what that means and call out a lot of the things that have prevented this work moving forward. A lot of times when you’re dealing with poor and powerless people, a lot of the f**kery comes in because people feel like they can, because people feel like no one is paying attention. And I think, by and large, that has prevented the level of service and quality of service. Really, manifesting the way it should, and we have to call that out. Because in this kind of work you have to be, we are striving to be, impeccable with our work and people, you know, in all walks of life and all kinds of jobs.

People bulls**t. And in this kind of work, you can’t bulls**t. You can’t pretend to run a toilet. You can’t pretend to treat people well. You can’t. You can’t pretend to pick up. You have to be about the work. It has to be real. And when you bring in, when you bring in manipulation, when you bring in trickery, deceit, whatever that is, it throws the work off balance. We’re not in a line of work that can handle that. And so that’s just the easiest way to let folks know what we’re dealing with every day. The shocking reality of what we are, what we are seeing and dealing with every single day. Like “No f**kery” is, I don’t know, to me, it’s not shocking. You know, people living in the conditions that they’re living in and society kind of allowing it to manifest to that point.

The Examiner: I want to give you a chance to comment on an Instagram photo of you and Mohammed Nuru that a lot of people have talked about on social media. Was he a mentor? Was he a friend? And do you have any comments about that?

Lena Miller: Yeah, he was. You know, Mohammed is a complex person. And we are an organization where we don’t we don’t hold people by the standards of their worst moment, or the worst thing that they did in their life. People are complex. Sometimes they do horrible things, good things. I’m not going to comment on that. What I will say is, Mohammed is the one that said to me, you should really consider working with the guys we do, because they had been through it. The folks that lived in the halfway house had volunteered on some of the Community Clean days. You know, like they’re hard workers, those guys you know, they need a chance. And we also got the first contract for what turned into Urban Alchemy through DPW (Public Works).

Also, Mohammed lived in Bayview Hunters Point, is from Bayview Hunters Point. And everybody in our community knows, you know, you can get hired at DPW. There’s a lot of people who are living middle-class lives who went to go work for DPW. There’s not many places in The City where people got a shot and he gave a lot of people a shot. So now, and let’s be honest, up until all that stuff happened, everybody and their mother, whether they liked him or not, was kissing his ass. And so now all this happens, and everybody wants to distance themselves. I’m not going to do that. I’ve got to give the man his due for what he did and how he impacted Urban Alchemy. It is what it is.

And also, I want to say about that. That was my grandmother’s coat. There’s a lot of people talking about my fur coat. It wasn’t a fur coat. It was a coat with a collar that was. That was before we even had a lot of contracts, we were brand new. I think I was still in Hunters Family or something. We only had a few contracts. That coat is probably 80 years old, you know. Or the collar, more than that. I’m dressing up. I’m dressing up to go to the mayor’s inauguration. I’m a professional from Bayview Hunters Point. Everything about that outfit to go to a fancy affair is exactly what you would expect me to wear, to something where I want to look nice and honor our mayor’s inauguration.

You know what I’m saying? It just shows you how petty it is. So we serve homeless people. So, what, I’m not supposed to wear a coat that has fur around the collar? In retrospect, I’m more embarrassed about it because of the ethical issues, but you know, hey, it was my grandmother’s coat. I thought it looked nice. I wore a white suit. I feel good about it till everybody bashed it. So now, when you ask me do I want my… Like, why? If I make more than $30,000, everyone is going to have a problem with it. So anyway, because people believe that if you do this work, you’re supposed to be poor, you know to look poor. And I think only people who start out not poor, you know, very middle class or upper middle class or rich, share that sentiment. The people who are struggling to try to get beyond poverty, you know, and, and want to feel like they look nice or wear nice things. We don’t have that. We don’t have that approach to life.

The Examiner: So let me ask you something. You’re doing hard work. You’re the chief executive of an agency that’s growing really fast. When something like that Instagram photo gets a lot of comment., is that hurtful? And does that get on your nerves because you are working so hard every day?

Miller: You’re f**king right. Yes. Absolutely. I went to the… what is it? That paper that broke that article about us with security guards. S.F. Standard? Not weekly. What is it, Standard? So they had a grand opening. So I went and I talked to Michael Moritz and he said, ‘You must have thick skin.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have thick skin. I have an extremely thin skin.’ All that stuff hurts. You know, I’m a human being. I’m just trying to do the work. I’m not trying to get famous. I’m not taking tons of pictures and put them on Instagram. I’m just trying to do the work. But you become a public person. If you do the work well, right? And everybody feels that they have the right to scrutinize you. Everybody feels like you’re fair game. So I mean, it is what it is. I’m a big girl. I’ll deal with it. But no, it’s not easy. And it’s not OK. Yeah, and it comes with it. So I’ll deal with it.

The Examiner: Let me circle back for a minute to your unorthodox spiritual mission. You’ve got the Third Eye on the label. And you’re booming in two California cities that have tried basically everything that was by the book or normal for homelessness, and been unable to move the needle. Do you think U.A.’s unusual approach, you might say unique approach, is getting results when all that other stuff didn’t and therefore they’re doubling down on your spiritual approach?

Miller: I don’t think cities are doubling down on our spiritual approach because we don’t necessarily have a, like we don’t talk about spiritual things. We don’t sit there and reflect on what the Third Eye means. I mean, that’s it. If you know then you know, and then nothing else needs to be there, you know. If you don’t know, you know, it doesn’t matter. We insist that you practice. Cities aren’t doubling down on our spiritual approach. Cities are doubling down on our impact. They’re under so much pressure to get results. All they want is hassle-free results. Right? They don’t want a bunch of scandal and drama along with it. They don’t want, you know, a high-maintenance relationship that’s a pain in the ass. They want somebody that is just going to do the work, consistently high quality, and then they can stand on that.

Yes, I’ve heard there was like little Twitter stuff going around and, and one kind of, I don’t know if you call it a journalist, an activist, kind of alludes to, ‘it’s a cult,’ or, you know. So listen, if that was there, people would have figured it out by now. Found that out by now. Nothing, like I said, we don’t push any religious or spiritual practices. We don’t proselytize anybody. All we do is, we do the work. Everything is about the work. Spiritual ideas, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the work. And we let the work speak for us.

The Examiner: Very good. We’re out of time, but I wanted to give you a chance if there was anything else that you wanted to say or comment on.

Miller: Well, I guess I would like to answer a question that you had proposed, but you didn’t ask me, and that is about optimism and hope. You know, doing this is hard. Do I see hope and do I have optimism? I want to say, like, I can see clearly. That’s part of the eye, right? We can see. We can see clearly that there is hope, that there are ways to turn this around, 100%. The same way that the people who are working on climate change can tell us clearly how we can stop this doomsday clock and turn it around before it’s too late. I think I run up against the same thing that they probably run up against. It’s not is there a way to turn this around? Yes, there’s a way. But are human beings to change their behavior, you know, to be able to do what is needed to be done to turn this around. Now, I don’t know if I’m very optimistic about that. But I’ve got to keep pushing because what we have to do is show people what can be done. Because if we don’t demonstrate it can be done, then they’ll never change behavior.

You know, once I’m hoping that we finally get through this point where everyone is searching for the trick, kind of feel around how we keyed in and all this other kind of stuff. And time will sort all that out. You know? And so, OK, it’s doing really, really hard work over and over and over and over. And then we saw OK, so this is what it takes. Yes, it can be done. However, it takes everybody to say, ‘All right, well, let’s do it.’ But if you never show that it can be done, then people don’t change their behavior. So the only thing I can do is just keep performing, and keep demonstrating and hoping that at some point, people’s behavior will also change. And we can go ahead and do things as a society that we need to do to turn this ship around. So that’s it.

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