New teams from Urban Alchemy to respond to homeless calls in SF

Specialized teams of outreach workers from Urban Alchemy will begin hitting the streets of San Francisco on Tuesday, responding to dispatch calls involving non-violent homeless people and behavioral health calls that were previously left up to police to handle.

It marks an expansion of the non-profit group’s footprint in a city that’s struggling with challenges around homelessness and crime, particularly in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and South of Market. 

Officials say the program will free up police resources to respond to more serious crimes. 

"We’ll be leading our engagements with love and compassion and respect," said Katherine Napoleon, a manager with Urban Alchemy. "I personally feel like we are better equipped to handle these calls where we are not afflicting more trauma on unhoused communities."

The new program is called the Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team – and goes by the acronym HEART. 

Urban Alchemy has been training workers for the new unit for the past month, teaching CPR and de-escalation tactics throughout the month of May ahead of Tuesday’s launch. 

"Urban Alchemy has proven that trauma-informed, community-based strategies are effective at serving vulnerable populations and improving safety. Their Practitioners have the skills and training to interact with our unhoused residents in need with compassion and dignity, connecting them to the services and support they need," Mayor London Breed said in a statement. 

The program is launching as San Francisco has struggled with homelessness and crime downtown, where major retailers – like Whole Foods, Nordstrom and Old Navy -- have been closing shop.

It also comes as the latest effort in the Bay Area to shift calls for non-violent and non-emergencies away from police.

Oakland last year started a similar program called macro and BART recently deployed its own team of crisis intervention specialists

San Francisco has been operating a limited street crisis response team through the fired department, but the new program through Urban Alchemy will vastly expand the number of people fielding calls and steering people toward resources like housing and rehabilitation.

"I am very eager to be part of the solution," Napoleon said. "I feel like urban alchemy we do have that secret sauce."

That secret sauce involves employing people who were previously homeless or incarcerated, giving their workers credibility with the people they’re hoping to impact. 

The new HEART program will run Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on weekends until 3:30 p.m.

The program received $3 million from the city’s last fiscal year budget after it was selected by an independent review panel, officials said. 

Urban Alchemy has been running a similar program in Los Angeles for the past two years. 

Company officials said the Los Angeles Police Department receives around 140,000 calls related to homelessness that Urban Alchemy is now in charge of responding to. 

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky