SAN FRANCISCO — Part of San Francisco Mayor London Breed budget plan includes a goal of hiring 200 more police officers over the next two years.
She also plans to continue pouring millions of dollars into community ambassadors.
One of those programs — Urban Alchemy — recently added a new all-female team dressed in pink. They use their personal experiences to try and make a difference on the streets.
While on patrol, Jules Ignacio and Iresha Smith use their own money to buy a dozen donuts. They share the treats with anyone who wants one, all part of their approach to cleaning up the South of Market neighborhood.
“Some people over there like their drinking, drinking on empty stomachs. You know what I just said, it just gets a person’s heart through the stomach. That’s how you get to the heart,” Smith told CBS News Bay Area. “You go through the stomach, you know what I’m saying?”
The pair met just weeks ago, but describe themselves as long-lost sisters. They have been tasked with leading the first all-female Urban Alchemy group of ambassadors dubbed the “Love Team.” They focus on helping women and victims of domestic violence, but their arms are open to all.
“I know how they feel and it makes me want to help them because I want them to do good too,” Ignacio explained. She spent years in jail and relocated to San Francisco from Hawaii to join a halfway house. The mother of three and grandmother of ten says this experience helps her each day to connect to others on the street.
“Because you are them,” Smith said. “You’ve come to this state and started all the way over you know and look where you’re at.”
Roughly 34% of unhoused people in San Francisco are women, according to city data. And the majority of Urban Alchemy practitioners are female too.
But there’s nothing the Love Team can’t do that another Urban Alchemy team could, Smith says, racing to help a man who had fallen out of a wheelchair.
She said the key difference is tapping into their maternal instincts and using empathy to give others purpose.
“I think that can make a difference in a person’s life,” Smith explained. “There’s one person that walks past me every day saying, ‘Hey, good morning,’ and I’ll speak back. But what about that one day I don’t say ‘Hey, good morning?’ That could be the day that they’re dependent on that.”
Smith spent 15 years on the streets of San Francisco and in and out of jail. She says she uses this to connect with the very people who are in shoes she once stood in.
“A lot of people are afraid to deal with certain people because there’s a trust thing there,” Smith explained. “So if I’m a woman and I get approached by another woman, I might be a little bit more receptive and a little bit more understanding and I won’t feel as defensive as somebody’s trying to hurt me. Because, you know, these women, they’re on the streets. They feel vulnerable because they’re already on the streets, you know? And they’re a woman you know? They can be overpowered. But with us being present here, we’re empowered together and we’re greater in numbers.”
Self-reported statistics from Urban Alchemy show the group reversed 134 overdoses and intervened in more than 45,000 de-escalations, the task they’re known for the most.
Smith says in the first few days of their post near the Human Services Agency, the difference on the street was visible.
“A lot of these people have forgotten that there are people that care about them. And so when you know somebody cares about you, that can give you motivation out of this world,” said Smith. “You don’t want to let this person down because they believe in you. I wish this love team would have been around you know, when I was knee deep in the streets, you know I probably would have had a different journey or a quicker journey.”
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