Artie Gilbert leans against a flickering light pole at Market and Sixth streets. The corner will soon hum with commuters, downtown visitors and city employees, but on a recent August morning, it’s quiet even by pandemic standards.
He’s dressed in all black, save for a baseball cap and lime green trim on the reflective vest pulled over his T-shirt. Ornate tattoos peek out from beneath his sleeves, vestiges of a past when he thought he had to look tough to survive, Gilbert says.
A quick smile and hearty laugh both belie the 4:30 a.m. alarm that started Gilbert’s day and challenge the trite stereotype of someone who has spent nearly 30 years in prison.
“To feel accepted and supported and not judged is huge,” Gilbert said of his job at Urban Alchemy.
Founded in 2018, the nonprofit hires people who have experienced homelessness, substance abuse or incarceration to clean The City’s sidewalks, provide outreach to people on the street, and create safer public spaces in the Tenderloin and South of Market.
Dozens of employees, known as practitioners, deploy each morning to pick up trash, wash and sweep pavement and ask anyone who might have slept there overnight to move with their belongings. They work at pre-designated locations, typically blocks near social service providers, the Civic Center transit station, family-friendly destinations and stretches that have become exceptionally crowded or dirty.
According to Urban Alchemy counts, in a one-month period practitioners collected 2,973 needles and 2,089 bags of trash; scrubbed 17 graffiti murals; and addressed 113 reports of human waste.
“They have made a huge difference,” said Supervisor Matt Haney who represents District 6, which includes San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Civic Center. “Every day I walk around my district, and I see them making an even greater difference.”
Urban Alchemy also runs The City’s three safe sleeping villages — basically sanctioned and monitored tent encampments — and has overseen a few shelter-in-place hotels during the pandemic. The organization provides services to as many as 224 people each night at the sleep sites.
Every resident is offered a tent elevated on a wooden platform. The village provides showers, toilets and handwashing stations, charging stations and three delivered meals. A canvas-covered chain-link fence surrounds each site, and Urban Alchemy staff monitors the entrance to require signatures and a temperature check.
Unlike other shelters, people can stay at the safe sleep site as long as they want. They’re also free to bring pets and belongings as well as use drugs. The harsh conditions of poverty are on display as most residents have nowhere else to go. Practitioners conduct daily wellness checks in tents to ensure nobody has suffered a fatal overdose. One practitioner at the Gough Street site estimated they use Narcan, the fast-acting remedy for an opioid overdose, at least once weekly.
“This model does save lives,” said Ian Clark-Johnson, who was released from prison in November 2019 and now oversees the safe sleeping sites. “Because I work here, I don’t have to live here.”
Practitioners undergo de-escalation and trauma-informed training. But they’re quick to say their personal experience equips them to treat the people they encounter with respect and compassion.
“That’s our special sauce — relationships,” Gilbert says. “When you come from the kind of destruction that I have caused, it’s good to give back.”
The stories of practitioners are compelling. There’s Gilbert, who spent 26 years in prison after getting involved with gangs; Clark-Johnson, who grew up in Sacramento before winding up incarcerated; Johnny, son of an EMT who “made some bad choices;” Nolan, who says this job keeps him off the streets; Franklin, who was homeless until he took the Urban Alchemy job in January; and many more.
“Anything that is helping people transition out of jails, prisons and the criminal justice system into a working paid job where they’re given opportunities is, I think, a good thing,” said John Hamasaki, who sits on the San Francisco Police Commission.
Don’t be fooled, though. Urban Alchemy does face challenges.
It’s funded primarily as part of the Mid-Market/Tenderloin Community-Based Safety Program. That means contracts with city agencies such as the Department of Public Works and the Office of Emergency and Workforce Development dictate where it can work.
Take the Turk-Hyde Mini Park. It’s spotless, kitted out with shiny playground equipment and mess-proof flooring and overseen by Urban Alchemy staff. A cluster of tents line the sidewalk across the street. Or, as Gilbert walks from the safe sleeping site on Fell Street to the one on Gough Street, he passes at least two people sleeping in parklets, but can’t technically offer services because they don’t fall within the area specified in Urban Alchemy’s contract .
“The hardest part is meeting the needs of all the issues, and really being able to play a role in communicating to people,” Gilbert says.
Critics say the organization is another form of policing people experiencing homelessness. It points to Los Angeles, where the group has a smaller presence, and allegations that Urban Alchemy participated in city-led encampment sweeps.
Haney said he wouldn’t support using the organization for sweeps nor is he aware of any time it’s been asked to do so in San Francisco. Multiple practitioners told The Examiner they don’t participate and expressed concern that city sweeps undermine their own efforts to build trust.
“They are on our streets to help provide ambassadorship and stewardship,” Haney said. “They aren’t there to criminalize folks.”
Finally, there’s the question of Urban Alchemy’s efficacy. Does it really clean up the streets and create safe space without causing more harm to some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents?
Supporters say it’s well worth the investment because of the perceived public safety benefits that can’t be achieved using law enforcement.
Those are hard to quantify, but they’re measured in stories from parents who feel comfortable walking their children to school once Urban Alchemy arrives. Or from neighbors who say they now walk home at night after dinner at a Larkin Street parklet.
More skeptical voices counter that Urban Alchemy could be another expensive Band-Aid on San Francisco’s relentless battle with inequality, substance use and open air drug dealing on its streets.
“From my perspective, if we’re really going to be serious about trying to stop crime we have to address the conditions that create crime,” Hamasaki said.
When street cleaning practitioners encounter people on the street, they ask them to move before they start cleaning. They aren’t given the authority or tools needed to connect them with social services.
Things are different in safe sleeping villages. There, Urban Alchemy works with city providers to get people into the housing and health care, for example, with the goal being that the spaces become merely transitional, according to Clark-Johnson. But even he says the sites fall at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to deciding how and when to dole out resources.
Haney agrees with this critique.
“It’s not acceptable to set them up where the only tool that they have is to tell someone to move — that’s a failure on our part,” he said.
Moving forward, the supervisor wants increased funding to support and train the practitioners, equip Urban Alchemy to connect people on the street with services, and a plan from The City to take on more work to address root causes of mental illness, poverty and addiction.
Urban Alchemy practitioners know they have critics, especially from people who live in apartment buildings and high-rise condos near some of the sleeping sites.
Still, they persist.
Clark-Johnson invites skeptics to observe the work firsthand: “Keep your windows open, and just watch what we do.”