UC Hastings Law has launched a six-month pilot program with Urban Alchemy to provide enhanced safety on campus sidewalks and streets.
The move comes at a time when many cities and organizations are looking at alternatives to traditional policing.
“There’s been a very important conversation nationally about the appropriate uses of police enforcement,” said Rhiannon Bailard, UC Hastings’ Executive Director of Operations. “We’ve been having the same discussions at UC Hastings. We’ve got some challenging conditions on our streets. We wanted to do something progressive in this area. Urban Alchemy has a strong reputation and some enticing success stories.”
“Our goal has been to find an alternative to a police response for every situation encountered on the sidewalks,” Bailard said. The college was able to reallocate costs from off-duty police officers and security guards to funding for Urban Alchemy. “Urban Alchemy provides a unique approach that emphasizes establishing relationships and providing community-minded safety services” she said.
Urban Alchemy employs formerly incarcerated individuals, whom they call “practitioners.” Armed with emotional intelligence and de-escalation training, they work in teams as a calming presence in public spaces. For example, they have provided security at the Civic Center BART elevators and restrooms, Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin, and at the city’s Safe Sleeping Village at Fulton Street, next to the Main Library.
During the UC Hastings pilot project, which began in August, teams of five to ten practitioners patrol the campus from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. They walk the perimeter, generally defined by McAllister Street and Golden Gate Street as bounded by Hyde Street and Leavenworth Street, with additional coverage along Golden Gate between Hyde and Larkin.
Practitioners focus on building positive relationships with all members of the neighborhood, housed and unhoused, and work to interrupt negative behavior such as public urination or defecation, public drug use, and general noise disturbances, said Mike Anderer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Urban Alchemy. These relationships give them the leverage to defuse conflict when it arises.
They are also trained to assist if someone is having a mental health episode and to prevent or interrupt street crime. They carry Narcan to prevent overdoses, and can help connect those in need to services, such as through the city’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).
Practitioners also provide light custodial work, picking up trash, disposing of needles, and generally keeping the sidewalks clear and clean. The contract with UC Hastings is through the Tenderloin Community Benefit District (TLCBD). UC Hastings has a long relationship of working collaboratively with the TLCBD and other groups on neighborhood improvement. On a recent call with Tenderloin community members, residents expressed appreciation for feeling safer as they move through the neighborhood due to Urban Alchemy’s presence, Bailard said.
Bailey Maher, Director of Communications for Associated Students of UC Hastings (ASUCH), said students living in the Tower have welcomed their presence. “I enjoy them as individuals and as an organization,” 2L Katie Romero said. “I think their mission as a whole is great.”
“Urban Alchemy has completely transformed the street in front of the Tower and school. The streets are cleaner,” added 2L Mina Imen. “I’ve seen and heard them interact with people on the streets, and they really do speak their language. They get people to comply peacefully.”
Staff have also responded favorably. “It’s not a marginal difference. It’s dramatic,” said Elizabeth McGriff, Director of LEOP at UC Hastings. “These practitioners clearly have pride in their work, have pride in themselves. They do the work with dignity and grace.”
McGriff said she hoped the project has potential to help the larger neighborhood. She likes the Urban Alchemy model. “This is a great hybrid situation,” she said. “It benefits us, but it also benefits them. Their debt has been paid, and we are happy to have them come work in our community.”