After a worker sprayed water near a homeless person on Skid Row, Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced that he is launching an investigation into the worker's employer, Urban Alchemy.
A video shows the worker hosing down a sidewalk a few feet from a homeless person who was on their knees scrambling to pick up their possessions off the ground. Urban Alchemy, which has received millions of dollars in city contracts, said it fired the worker after the incident at a “climate station,” where Skid Row residents can receive services and relief from harsh weather in winter and summer.
The video of an employee of a City contractor, Urban Alchemy, spraying water in the direction of an unhoused person is disturbing.
Since 2021, the City has paid Urban Alchemy $14M+. We are looking into this contractor & the circumstances that led to this event. https://t.co/9zrBrM8ai4
— LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia (@lacontroller) January 19, 2024
On Jan. 18, Mejia shared a still image from the video on X, formerly known as Twitter, and said his office will look into the San Francisco-based nonprofit’s contracts with the city and the circumstances that led to what he called a "disturbing" incident.
"The City Charter puts the Controller in charge of ensuring tax dollars are well spent. That includes accountability for City contractors," Mejia wrote. "More unhoused people die in LA than in NYC of hypothermia. Acts of cruelty like the one in the video can be life-threatening in the winter."
Sergio Perez, the controller's chief of accountability and oversight director, said the investigation falls short of an audit but aims to ensure that Urban Alchemy, which has received about $14 million from the city since 2021 for providing homelessness services, including street cleaning and operating shelters, is meeting its contractual obligations.
“We’re experiencing more and more severe winter events here in Los Angeles, and our unhoused neighbors are among the most vulnerable ... and that’s one of the things that [caught] our attention ... and that is to watch someone in the dark, cold hours to be threatened with water that way," Perez said.
In an email to city leaders, stakeholders and Skid Row residents, Urban Alchemy Chief Executive Lena Miller said the worker's “egregious and outrageous act” did not reflect the values and training of the organization, which employs many people who were once incarcerated or homeless.
“The individual involved was immediately fired,” she wrote in her email. “We are also conducting further investigation into whether other [workers] who were on site were complicit or passive in stopping this incident, and further disciplinary action will be taken for those individuals, should we find any negligence.”
Urban Alchemy officials said the worker was hosing the sidewalk to clean feces left by the unhoused person in the video, whom they have subsequently placed in transitional housing.
The nonprofit’s growth over the years has sparked criticism over the training and conduct of its outreach workers, known as ambassadors or practitioners. Some have been accused in lawsuits of abusive behavior, while some homeless advocates have portrayed Urban Alchemy as a surrogate for police in clearing unpopular encampments.
In 2021, the nonprofit worked alongside outreach workers from other agencies to urge people at a large encampment in Echo Park to accept offers of shelter.
Still, some city leaders say Urban Alchemy plays a crucial role in responding to emergencies such as overdoses and mental health crises. They say its workers also help alleviate the burden on police officers.
Earlier this month, a Stanford University study found that crime and drug use had declined significantly in areas where Urban Alchemy ambassadors were stationed.
Forrest Stuart, a Stanford professor of sociology and author of the study, said the study, which is being peer-reviewed, found that crime dropped by 52% in a 12-month period while drug use declined by 80%.
Stuart said that using the same ambassadors at the same locations helped develop trust with unhoused people.
"They do all sorts of things for neighborhoods, but they also get people to do stuff like de-escalate, clean up an area or get someone off the street," he said.
Miller said that Urban Alchemy will survey the community on their opinions of the services it provides. She said workers will receive a refresher training course so they clearly understand Urban Alchemy's standards.
The climate stations have "stood as a place of safety, support and community,” Miller said. “We intend to restore and maintain that reputation."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.