Fri, Mar

Is Urban Alchemy Up to the Job? Critics Say No.

HOMELESS CRISIS INTERVENTION - At last week’s Neighborhood Council for Westchester and Playa (NCWP) meeting, one of Traci Park’s staff aides said a CIRCLE homelessness intervention team will soon be established in Westchester. CIRCLE is an anacronym for Crisis and Incident Response team through Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE); instead of law enforcement, it sends people trained in crisis intervention and outreach to engage with the homeless, which is an admirable goal.  Many unhoused people have serious mental and/or substance abuse problems that often manifest as threatening behavior. If a qualified team can intervene, people can get the help they need without burdening the public safety system, while avoiding potentially dangerous outcomes for all involved. 

Unfortunately, the City of Los Angeles has chosen an organization called Urban Alchemy to provide at least some field services for the CIRCLE program in various locations.  As the Westside Current reported last year, Urban Alchemy has a decidedly sketchy history.  WC Urban Alchemy.  Its claims of successful programs in San Francisco are flatly refuted by the reality of the crisis in the Tenderloin and other districts where its so-called “alchemists / practitioners” have been deployed.  Urban Alchemy currently operates outreach programs in Venice and Hollywood.  As has been documented previously, both sites have been plagued by large tent encampments and crime around shelter facilities. Even Knock L.A., which is usually a PR firm for advocacy groups, was sharply critical of Urban Alchemy; its article questioned its claim it sends “highly trained” teams onto the streets; the Knock reporter who participated in the training received two days of video-based classes.  This is hardly the extensive training needed to intervene with seriously mentally ill people.

Urban Alchemy’s website is an odd mixture of New Age philosophy and unsubstantiated claims of success. For example, the website says it cleaned L.A.’s Skid Row and “transformed Skid Row from a traumatized environment into somewhere people felt safe and proud to upkeep”. Anyone who has visited Skid Row knows the reality.  Urban Alchemy claimed it cleared more then 188,000 tents from Skid Row. That’s almost three times the total number of homeless people in L.A. County, according to LAHSA.  Even if they counted new tents replacing removed ones, that would be about 19 tents for each of the estimated 10,000 unhoused living in the Skid Row area. 

The issue with Urban Alchemy is larger than Westchester or an oddball service organization.  It is indicative of how carelessly the City and County have responded to the homelessness crisis by granting contracts to virtually any organization with the right connections, despite its performance. Even a cursory Internet search of Urban Alchemy reveals questionable business practices, including a CEO who is well known for her sartorial splendor and political connections. San Francisco news media have been reporting on Urban Alchemy’s problematic performance for almost a year.  A San Francisco Examiner article from April 2022 noted irregularities in the agency’s finances, and the City’s rush to sign no-bid contracts for $41 million with its well-connected CEO:

“On the other hand, close relationships with City Hall have raised questions about no-bid contracts that are part of the $41 million San Francisco taxpayers will send to Urban Alchemy. Yet because the nonprofit was granted reporting extensions by the Internal Revenue Service, much of the bookkeeping of its boom has not been visible. Its CEO, Lena Miller, declined to disclose her salary, while her relationships with City Hall power brokers has played a key part in the nonprofit’s growth.

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.”

Last year, the City of Los Angeles signed a $2.6 million contract for serving the Venice and Hollywood locations. The contract describes the services Urban Alchemy is supposed to provide, but has no performance measures other than periodic reporting; the contract doesn’t even specify what they should be reporting on. There are no performance measures like the number of contacts it takes before each person is sheltered, or how they are sheltered or how long they stay sheltered. What is specified is this: 

“Teams may include crisis workers and homeless outreach workers, preferably with lived experience and/or formerly incarcerated individuals.”  Obviously, the contract was tailored specifically for Urban Alchemy.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with hiring former substance abusers or incarcerated persons, it begs the question of how effective these individuals will be at dealing with high-level behavioral crises in the field, especially if they receive only two days of video training. This contract isn’t for structured therapy in a controlled indoor setting, where peer counseling would be valuable; it’s for emergency response under a variety of stressful conditions. One would think someone with extensive training in crisis management would be the preferred contact. 

In a February 2023 article, the San Francisco Standard reviewed the effects of hiring former convicts and sending them into the field with minimal training:

 “To that end, Urban Alchemy prioritizes hiring ex-convicts who have served decades in prison after being convicted of serious crimes, which can include murder. 

But [CEO Lena] Miller’s core philosophy—that long stints in prison can equip a person for handling crises in the streets—is a selling point that seems to run counter to mainstream psychology. 

Prison is characterized in stacks of psychological research papers as a mental illness incubator where violence, deprivation and nihilism distort social skills and undermine inmates’ social compasses, sometimes resulting in a PTSD-like disorder called post-incarceration syndrome. 

Symptoms of post-incarceration syndrome include aggressive and antisocial behavior, a permanent, unbridgeable emotional distance from other people, panic attacks and recurrent nightmares, according to numerous studies and surveys. 

Montrell Dorsey, a former director of workforce development with Urban Alchemy, said that people getting out of long sentences in all-male prisons don’t get proper training and that allegations of harassment and assault by workers are not adequately addressed by the organization. 

“They don’t understand how to engage with women,” Dorsey said, describing one Urban Alchemy supervisor accused of assault who was merely shifted to another post. “You have some people who are very inappropriate.” 

In summary, the City of Los Angeles has decided to hire, as a primary provider of crisis intervention services, an agency with questionable claims to success and an unproven business strategy. Like San Francisco, Los Angeles awarded Urban Alchemy contracts without competitive bidding, a practice that will continue under the mayor’s emergency ordinance. The reasons for hiring such a controversial organization run the gamut of possibilities, from being too lazy to check prior performance, to desperation to hire anyone as a sign of taking bold action, to the CEO’s political savvy.  As a former public sector manager and experienced contract administrator, I would stay far away from an organization with Urban Alchemy’s track record.  Yet Los Angeles has invited it to become a critical component of its homeless intervention programs.  Quite often, it seems to be more about who can make money from this crisis, but perhaps that is a subject for another day. For now, it should be enough to seriously question our lady’s real motivations as they expend public resources on the most serious crisis to face Los Angeles in the past 60 years. 


(Tim Campbell is a semi-retired public sector performance audit manager, who knows about successful and failed programs, a resident of Westchester who lives with the real-world results of years of poor policy decisions every day.)