Every major city has at least one neighborhood, street, or intersection that people actively avoid because it feels unsafe, unclean, and unhappy.
Nonprofit social enterprise Urban Alchemy is working to transform these spaces—and help heal the people in them—with the expertise of people who understand what it’s like to be disenfranchised.
“We hire people who have multiple barriers to employment, but we prioritize former long-term offenders, usually folks who served life sentences and are now coming home after decades in prison,” says Jeff Kositsky, Urban Alchemy’s CFO.
The name Urban Alchemy refers to the process of spiritual and social transformation that its employees, who are known as practitioners, engage in—within themselves and with the people they serve. With honesty, compassion, and no judgment, they assess and serve some of the most traumatized and vulnerable people in urban centers.
Practitioners receive extensive training and ongoing support to help ensure their success, and Kositsky says their life experience provides a strong foundation for this work: “The prison experience made our practitioners incredibly skilled—they’re possibly the best on the planet—at engaging people struggling at the intersection of extreme poverty, mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.”
Urban Alchemy provides four core services: community engagement and outreach, interim housing, hygiene services, and street-cleaning services.
Founded in 2018 with 30 staff, Urban Alchemy started out by providing one program that monitored public bathrooms in a San Francisco neighborhood. Today, it’s a $50 million agency with 1,200 employees operating in two states and four cities—plus plans to expand.
“We have public and private contracts in multiple communities, working with community benefits distributors and businesses to provide one or all four of our services in the areas where we currently have a presence: San Francisco and Southern California, and Austin, Texas,” says Kositsky.
The CIRCLE provides an alternative to the police
The largest number of Urban Alchemy practitioners are involved in community outreach. They work as ambassadors to calm neighborhoods and public spaces by forming bonds with residents, promoting positive behavior, and connecting people to services.
“Our practitioners usually have similar lived experiences, and their primary approach is humanistic. They talk to people from a position of understanding.” Kirkpatrick Tyler, chief of government and community affairs at Urban Alchemy
Case in point: The CIRCLE project, an initiative of the L.A. Mayor’s office, in cooperation with the L.A.P.D. Under the program, non-violent 911 calls related to homelessness, mental health, and addiction are routed to the CIRCLE dispatch center 24/7 and Urban Alchemy practitioners act as first-responders as an alternative to the police, resolving non-violent incidents more effectively than law enforcement.
“Our practitioners usually have similar lived experiences, and their primary approach is humanistic. They talk to people from a position of understanding,” says Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy’s chief of government and community affairs.
Zendesk helps make CIRCLE possible
Urban Alchemy needed a technology platform that would allow CIRCLE’s dispatch center to receive and route calls and collect and configure data. Zendesk was a familiar partner, having worked over the years with Urban Alchemy’s practitioners in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, home to the company’s headquarters. Zendesk’s Tech for Good program stepped in, offering free software to help the CIRCLE project scale.
Urban Alchemy uses:
- Zendesk Support to track the various types of community engagements (and their resolutions) initiated by an Urban Alchemy practitioner, through a 911 call, or by a local resident or business.
- Zendesk Talk to receive calls from outside lines that flow into the Support module. Currently, the L.A.P.D. Communications Center is the primary user of this channel, though Urban Alchemy has plans to leverage Talk in different ways in the future.
- Zendesk Explore to visualize the data collected in Zendesk Support and Talk to report to contract partners and the general public.
“Zendesk has always been an integral part of what we’re doing with the CIRCLE,” says Tyler. “When calls come in, our dispatchers listen to them through Zendesk. All data and information we receive is collected using Zendesk and then sent out to medics on the street.”
In Los Angeles, the CIRCLE project receives five to 10 calls each day. The team expects those numbers to rise as they expand the program to different communities within the city. Tyler says, “We are planning an aggressive expansion over the next eight months. Currently, we have two dispatchers per shift, but when we ramp up, there will be 20 to 25 dispatchers available 24/7.”
Practitioners in the community also call in to report engagements they encounter. With data coming from multiple sources, it’s critical to track and report it to best determine staffing and the type of support Urban Alchemy needs to offer each community.
“Using Zendesk Explore to manage our data is important because we didn’t want to be reliant on external data,” says Tyler. “It’s important that we’re able to create our own narrative and not have to wait for other agencies to share data. Zendesk really empowered us to manage on our own.”
A Zendesk dashboard provides an at-a-glance snapshot of the number and type of incidents reported over any given time and breaks it down by how they were routed—from 911 or community practitioners. This is valuable information as Urban Alchemy evaluates and reports its impact in communities.
“One of the greatest things about this technology is that we can be so much more client-centric. This is so much more humane when serving unsheltered people who are struggling to just get through the day.”Jeff Kositsky, CFO of Urban Alchemy
Between January and June 2022, the CIRCLE program fielded nearly 1,500 calls using Zendesk; 45 practitioners used the platform to report incidents on tablets in the field, and eight operators used it from the dispatch center.
“Zendesk has been helpful to the team by allowing us to create and revisit engagement tickets so we can do a wellness check on a person experiencing homelessness,” said James Hegler, safety and service director. “This keeps and supports our efforts to build a relationship with those we serve.”
The data is also an important component in fundraising, acquiring new contracts, and setting up in other cities.
“Everyone is clamoring for alternatives to the police,” says Kositsky, “and this program is so replicable. We can easily go into any community and do it. If we had to rely on 911 call center data, it would be very hard for us to produce reports like we do with Zendesk. The platform makes it as plug and play as possible.”
He continues, “One of the greatest things about this technology is that we can be so much more client-centric. This is so much more humane when serving unsheltered people who are struggling to just get through the day.”
Urban Alchemy plans to continue to partner with Tech for Good as it expands into other cities and increases its service offerings.