A new contractor with the City, Urban Alchemy has already had a big impact on Los Angeles — but not much transparency.
[Knock LA, like other news outlets and citizen activists, initially had trouble receiving even basic information from Urban Alchemy. So, the author of this article applied for a job at Urban Alchemy and underwent two days of training for the Project CIRCLE pilot program. Urban Alchemy’s CEO Lena Miller provided comment through a media firm after we revealed our undercover reporting.]
“The fence is never coming down. That’s how they keep the encampments out and control the park.” Near the end of our walk around Echo Park Lake with an Urban Alchemy program operations manager, he explained to me and other trainees the process by which we would document and chart all of our interactions with unhoused folks, to prove to the mayor’s office that we’re doing the work. “By the end of the year, there will be 100 of us in Venice, and 100 of us in Hollywood, but we’ll be the O.G.’s,” he said.
When asked later about how they came to learn about the fence’s indefinite status, a representative of Urban Alchemy told Knock LA their “information about the fence has come from media reports.” As of publishing time, Knock LA has been unable to find any articles or newscasts describing the fence’s seemingly permanent presence in Echo Park Lake, so it’s possible that manager was confused about how, exactly, they “control the park.”
Since the sweep in Echo Park Lake, and with Councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Joe Buscaino’s ongoing conflict with LAHSA and unhoused service providers in general, Urban Alchemy’s role in the City’s homelessness outreach structure has dramatically expanded.
Urban Alchemy, founded in 2018, is an unhoused outreach company focusing on hiring formerly incarcerated people and those with a history of substance abuse or experience with homelessness. The main premise of UA’s training documents was that they were hiring people with emotional intelligence, because they believe that unhoused people have a similar type of emotional intelligence to damaged or incarcerated people, therefore facilitating communication They view their outreach as coming from a “trauma informed lens.” “Hurt people hurt people,” the instructor often repeated.
Urban Alchemy first came to Los Angeles in 2020 as part of an effort to provide showers, handwashing stations, and cleaning to Skid Row. They offered similar services in San Francisco since 2018. Urban Alchemy provided a data sheet showing they supply over 12,000 showers per year. On the walk in Echo Park Lake, a manager told me that they had the largest shower program in the country. Street Watch LA’s Jed Parriott said, “I’m familiar with Urban Alchemy as running Pit Stop porta potties like the one on Alvarado/101 freeway. I am a huge fan of that program specifically for the porta potties. I was very confused as to what they were doing at Echo Park Lake… we’ve always pushed for a jobs program for unhoused people.”
An operations manager introduced us to the engagement team at Echo Park Lake as Urban Alchemy’s cream-of-the-crop alchemists, or practitioners. “Y’all see the park? No camping anymore. They did that,” referring to this top squad. “We don’t work with law enforcement anymore,” another member of the engagement team agreed. For his part, Councilmember O’Farrell, who represents Echo Park Lake, claimed that the individuals living there were not “swept” and that his office coordinated with Urban Alchemy before the violent displacement of unhoused residents.
Urban Alchemy told Knock LA this about the engagement team’s role at Echo Park Lake: “Urban Alchemy’s outreach team worked for months to establish relationships with the guests living in Echo Park to understand their needs and identify appropriate housing options, with the support of LAHSA and the PATH program. As part of our work, we obtained an agreement from LAPD that they would stand down and allow us to engage and support the guests in Echo Park.” On March 24, 2020, approximately 400 police officers showed up at Echo Park Lake to disperse protesters and guard the hasty construction of the apparently indefinite fence. Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office has yet to respond to our request for comment as of the time of this writing.
Urban Alchemy received a $1.1 million contract with the City to manage the Safe Sleeping Village in CD 13 at a cost of $2,600 per person per month. For a similar arrangement in a tent site in San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the city was paying $5,100 per tent, per month — twice the rate of a one-bedroom apartment. Urban Alchemy’s CEO Miller has been criticized for her lavishly adorned public appearances, and it has been suggested that Urban Alchemy’s daily count of tents is used to inform other city services on how to better conduct sweeps. “Urban Alchemy would typically collect data in connection with any service contract,” Urban Alchemy told Knock LA. They continued, “Urban Alchemy complies with HIPPA guidelines in relation to all client data, and only aggregate data is shared with a contract partner.” Their hauntingly familiar logo — an eyeball inside of a triangle and a circle — cannot help but remind one of the Eye of Providence and raise suspicions of surveillance and conspiracy, especially given the intensely policed nature of Echo Park Lake. “It feels like when I see Urban Alchemy now I say, ‘Oh, they’re the first wave. The next wave’s the cops,’” said Parriott.
Most of the language in Urban Alchemy’s online literature seems based in New Age philosophy, rather than medical training or social work. In a statement provided to Knock LA, Urban Alchemy elucidated some of the spiritual values they teach: “Our Practitioners must be armed with a powerful spirit that communicates caring, safety, non-judgement, and kindness. One’s spirit gains power through righteous deeds and actions. Alchemy is the science of spiritual power. This science cannot be persuaded, manipulated, or deceived to provide different results. One cannot cheat or deceive their own spirit. The only way through, is by approaching life with a clear/n spirit.”
One Urban Alchemy director runs a separate nonprofit in San Francisco called “Illuman” that focuses on teaching spirituality to men, and, specifically, during a summer camping trip, young men.
Typically, Urban Alchemy calls their outreach workers “Practitioners” or “Alchemists,” but a perusal of LinkedIn reveals that some employees list their job title as “Security Guard.” The Guardian describes a San Francisco site as being “guarded” by Urban Alchemy staff. According to a UA representative, “People may be listing this description on their LinkedIn because they are trying to find a job title that a large proportion of employers would value and commodify their skill sets to future employers.”
Their work has also received glowing recommendations from unhoused activist General Jeff, and Steve Lopez of the LA Times, whose piece mostly focused on the organization’s mission of giving formerly incarcerated people a second chance at employment. Miller and the Urban Alchemy staff often speak about how an incarcerated person has better emotional intelligence to deal with outreach to unhoused residents.
The first in-person orientation day for Project CIRCLE (Crisis Incidents Response Through Community Led Engagements), Urban Alchemy’s elite outreach team, was, appropriately, held in a circle near the entrance of Echo Park Lake. We were told by our training manager that this would be a chance to prove to the mayor’s office that UA could justify their faith (and money) in the program. “People have been out here for years and can’t get the job done,” our manager said, referring to LAHSA. “They don’t want us out here.” Project CIRCLE is currently slated to expand to Hollywood and Venice in late July 2021, though there may be delays. There was an air of defensiveness bordering on hostility to what the organization perceived as critics. This was especially true when it came to Street Watch LA — or, as a member of Urban Alchemy’s engagement team called them, “the LA Street Watch.”
“If they ask you when the fence is coming down,” he said, “then they’re part of LA Street Watch [Street Watch LA]. They could look like anyone. A husband and wife. They bring their kids. They don’t want us here because they want the homeless in the park… Don’t give LA Streetwatch any information because they want us out of the park and the homeless back in.” Jed Parriott of Street Watch LA, a city-wide, grassroots volunteer organization focused on outreach services and advocacy with unhoused residents, responded: “We’ve said from the beginning we are fighting for fucking housing is a human right for everybody. We have been the ones who… over a year ago… myself and others just got arrested, pressuring the city to open more hotel rooms.” Urban Alchemy’s response to Knock LA answered all of our questions, except the one regarding their employees’ comments on Street Watch LA.
A trainee asked why people would want to keep homeless in the park and interfere with outreach teams such as Urban Alchemy. An engagement team member answered that Street Watch protesters are paid, and doing things for their own benefit. According to Parriott, “There’s zero evidence that any of us get paid because we don’t because we’re all volunteers… we fundraise and literally buy tents and hygiene supplies.” Parriott also described Street Watch’s organization’s relationship with Urban Alchemy prior to the Echo Park Lake sweep as cordial and not antagonistic, though he did say Urban Alchemy began to openly state they were there to help clear people out of the park once rumors started to swirl about an upcoming massive sweep.
Multiple members of Urban Alchemy made it clear that employees were not to not talk to anyone — media or otherwise — about the fence erected at Echo Park Lake after the mass eviction of unhoused people and arrest of protesters and journalists in March. “Just say you don’t know, or tell them to talk to your supervisor,” one practitioner said. “If anyone asks what you’re doing here, be careful,” our manager said. “Point to a piece of trash and tell them you’re here to pick up that trash. That’s it.” One enthusiastic trainee — he had fully memorized Urban Alchemy’s jargon and acronyms from the orientation slideshow, even meticulously rapping the organization’s 7 spiritual values — asked, “Why shouldn’t we talk to anyone? Aren’t we trying to start a dialogue?” Our manager responded, “You know how they twist our words for business.”
“We may look like security, but we’re not security,” one member of the engagement team said, regarding Urban Alchemy’s recognizable neon green and black outfits. During my in-person interview, I was encouraged to never call the police, but rather an Urban Alchemy supervisor. However, on my training walk around Echo Park Lake, my manager was adamant that we call the police whenever an “incident” felt out of control. He specifically advised that we call 911. A trainee asked, “Why wouldn’t we call the non-emergency number?” Our manager responded: “The fuck is a non-emergency number?” The literature in the Zoom training session indicates to call a non-emergency number, however.
Practitioners are trained in first aid and how to treat people with Narcan in an emergency. Ostensibly, Project CIRCLE could be used as an alternative harm reduction strategy in place of law enforcement when dealing with unhoused people, but Knock LA wanted clarity on exactly how that would look.
When I pressed Miller for more details on the organization’s policy on calling law enforcement, they directed me to the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office has yet to respond for comment at the time of publishing.
Interactions with unhoused people were compared to hostage negotiations and also to chess games. While the future of the City’s overall plan to deal with encampments is unclear, with a motion to criminalize camping by amending ordinance 41.18 — a “sit-lie” law that makes sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces a criminal offense — being rammed through city council, a decision to be made on the Judge Carter case, and an upcoming mayoral race (where candidate Joe Buscaino has spoken about eliminating the role of LAHSA entirely), the role of companies like Urban Alchemy may only grow. They list 638 practitioners now, and once Project CIRCLE begins, that number will increase with new hires. They’ll be at the forefront of countless interactions with unhoused folks, and because of their private nonprofit status, somewhat shielded from the public eye. It remains to be seen how they will fit it to the ultimate goal of getting unhoused folks into permanent housing.
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