The cities of Sausalito and Austin don’t have much in common. Sausalito has a population of 7,200 versus Austin’s 962,000. Sausalito officials report 18 homeless people live in the city, while Austin reports more than 3,000 unhoused people.
Yet Sausalito was discussed repeatedly in two Austin City Council meetings last week, which led up to a vote on whether to approve a more than $4 million no-bid contract with Urban Alchemy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, to manage a downtown homeless shelter for 13 months.
Council members raised concerns about a June article in the Pacific Sun, which detailed serious allegations against some of the Urban Alchemy employees who were managing Sausalito’s city-sanctioned homeless encampment. More than 10 Sausalito camp residents accused the staff of sexually assaulting young homeless women, as well as using and distributing drugs on the job.
City council members questioned Adrienne Stirrup, the public health director, about why city staff awarded the contract to Urban Alchemy.
Stirrup said she had contacted Chris Zapata, Sausalito’s city manager, and he had “nothing but good things to say about the organization’s track record.”
Zapata referred to Urban Alchemy as “well-versed” and “highly recommended” for providing “humane care,” Stirrup said. Stirrup also indicated that Zapata had commended the Urban Alchemy staff for building relationships with the homeless encampment residents.
According to Stirrup, Zapata mentioned that Urban Alchemy immediately addressed “an unfortunate singular incident caught on video” when it was brought to their attention, “and there were not any additional concerns on the part of the city.”
It’s unclear which “unfortunate singular incident” Zapata might have been discussing. Perhaps he saw the video where an Urban Alchemy supervisor called a woman at the camp a “bitch” and a “whore.” Or maybe it was the video of another supervisor screaming at a camper, “I’m going to fuck you up.” Then again, it could have been the one showing Urban Alchemy employees rifling through donations intended for the homeless campers.
Assuming Zapata doesn’t believe the sexual assault and drug allegations made by the Sausalito campers, is the city manager unaware of verifiable incidents involving Urban Alchemy employees?
An Urban Alchemy employee “borrowed” $400 from a homeless resident who receives disability payments. The money was repaid only after Sausalito’s attorneys were notified of the “loan” by the president of the Sausalito Homeless Union.
Apparently, Zapata overlooked a Sausalito police report detailing an incident where an Urban Alchemy employee admitted to a police officer that he purposely knocked a homeless man to the pavement for getting in his personal space.
Zapata didn’t respond to the Pacific Sun’s questions by press time.
The Austin City Council ultimately approved the Urban Alchemy contract because the organization currently managing the shelter is exiting next month and no other service provider had submitted a letter of interest within the 24-hour deadline imposed by the city. However, the council instructed city staff to have oversight measures written into the contract to reduce the risk of problems.
Hopefully, the safeguards prove effective, otherwise Zapata might be facing a new set of questions.