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San Francisco Nonprofit Hires Ex-Convicts To Clean Up City's Streets, Image

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- A new office opened Sunday for a San Francisco nonprofit that is putting people to work cleaning up the streets and the city's image as well.

The farmers market in U.N. Plaza is crowded on Sundays with locals and tourists alike. The city provides sidewalk restrooms that they call "Pit Stops," accompanied by an attendant to greet people and keep things on the up and up.

"Having someone here all the time keeps the place clean," said San Francisco resident Curt Abron, "and it's just a real good influence on the whole city around this neighborhood."

Attendants give directions, keep things clean and discourage drug-users from taking over the facilities. Others clean city streets and parks and keep BART elevators free of riff-raff.

The workers are paid through a nonprofit called Urban Alchemy that puts former long-term offenders to work providing a service that is desperately needed. Marvin Saleem did his time and hopes to join the program soon. He says despite what some people think, hiring ex-convicts can be a good business move.

"Once they get a job, they're determined," Saleem said. "They're determined not to go back."

Urban Alchemy grew out of another neighborhood program called Hunter's Point Family. Lena Miller, the group's founder, says because her workers spent years in prison, they have learned something she calls "emotional intelligence."

"And that is the ability to read and assess people and situations and speak to people in a way with love and respect that gets them to understand that there are rules and to comply with it, but in a very respectful way," she said.

That helps in dealing with many of the city's down and out, like those who hang out on 6th Street. That's why Sunday's opening of their new office on 6th, just a block off of Market Street, was so meaningful.

"Symbolically, it's important for us to have our office where you have the concentration of the things we're dealing with," said Miller.

Their approach is not to shoo off the street people in favor of the tourists and businesses, but to make things more livable when everyone is together.

"And that's really what I think is different about us," Miller added, "is that we're here for everybody."

Others are taking notice of what Urban Alchemy is doing. They've already got a contract to begin working in Los Angeles's Skid Row and they expect to be expanding there in the coming months. In San Francisco, Urban Alchemy is a nonprofit contractor and employs more than 750 people. They expect that number to grow to 900 by the end of the year.

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