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Can licensed tent villages ease California's homelessness epidemic? This nonprofit thinks so

Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — The rows of white canvas cabin tents newly erected in an out-of-the-way quarter of Culver City, along the bank of Ballona Creek, have the ambiance of an Army field base.

Miles to the east in South Los Angeles, more modest camping tents — like one might buy at a sporting goods store — line the parking lot of the shuttered Lincoln Theater, evoking something more like a Boy Scout jamboree.

Though dissimilar in style, the two tent villages have a common purpose: They're the easiest step from the deprivations and hazards of the street to a place where meals are served three times daily and guards are on duty around the clock.

The camps are managed by Urban Alchemy, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that has rapidly grown into a multimillion-dollar street services enterprise and embodies an elastic philosophy of shelter. Urban Alchemy calls them safe sleep villages.

While some homeless advocates regard the tiny home cabins that have sprouted by the hundreds across Los Angeles as the minimum acceptable form of shelter, Urban Alchemy views tents as a way to create shelter quickly and cheaply without compromising the benefits most valued by people accustomed to living on the street — privacy, nourishment, security and a sense of autonomy.

"Our philosophy is that we should have a multitude of options for our unhoused residents," said Kirkpatrick Tyler, the nonprofit's chief of government-community affairs. "What we found in the early iterations of safe sleep is that some people preferred tents because it gave them a sense of ownership."


Tents also "allowed them to keep the familiar environment that was around them but still do that in a place where they were safe, supported and not being victimized by drug dealers or abusers or loan sharks or all of the people that kind of prey on unhoused populations," he said.

Starting with a $35,983 grant in 2018 to maintain the city's public toilets, Urban Alchemy founder Lena Miller defined its mission as social alchemy to transform the ills of street life by establishing "safety and cleanliness." It fielded a streetwise staff — at first made up primarily of former prisoners — who had the "ability to read people in unpredictable situations."

Aggressive marketing aligned with rising public discontent over homelessness made for a winning strategy. By 2021 it reported $51 million in revenue primarily from contracts for street outreach and shelter operations in San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Los Angeles.

The yellow-striped black jackets of Urban Alchemy "ambassadors" have become a common sight around Los Angeles courtesy of contracts with the city and individual council offices to provide outreach to homeless communities from Echo Park to Venice.


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