Portland shelter operator Urban Alchemy accused of violating city lobbying rules

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
May 1, 2024 8:43 p.m.

The California-based nonprofit that Portland has hired to run many of its outdoor homeless shelters violated city lobbying rules, according to an investigation.

A cluster of sleeping pods at the Clinton Triangle shelter on February 27, 2024. The shelter is the city's largest, offering space to more than 200 guests.

A cluster of sleeping pods at the Clinton Triangle shelter on February 27, 2024. The shelter is the city's largest, offering space to more than 200 guests.

Alex Zielinski / OPB


The City Auditor’s Office found that Urban Alchemy did not report spending nearly $4,000 to send four employees from California to Portland in December 2022, to convince elected officials to let them run the city’s new shelters.

Under city lobbying regulations, any organization that spends more than $1,000 in the span of three months discussing city policy with elected officials must register as a lobbyist, and report related expenses.

“During this trip, Urban Alchemy employees met with the Mayor, City Commissioners, County leadership, and local service providers — all in an effort to pave the way for Urban Alchemy to be selected as Portland’s alternative shelter service provider,” the report reads.

It worked: In April, the city approved a five-year, $50 million contract for Urban Alchemy to mass shelter sites across the city.

That trip came after months of conversations between City Council offices and Urban Alchemy representatives about plans to operate large-scale outdoor shelters, where they discussed budgets, amenities, and potential programming. It also followed an October visit by city officials to Los Angeles to tour an Urban Alchemy shelter.

Related: Portland leaders start work on plan to ban homeless camping


Yet, despite the work that went into winning this funding, Urban Alchemy never registered as a lobbyist with the city.

Urban Alchemy denies its December 2022 visit was lobbying.

In a response to the city’s report, lawyers representing Urban Alchemy argued that staff visited Portland at the request of elected officials, to educate them on the process of setting up outdoor shelters.

“Indeed, the City initiated the contact after identifying a need for a contractor to manage the City’s campsites, and Urban Alchemy responded to request for information received from City officials,” attorneys Danny Newman and Paul Balmen with Tonkon Torp law firm wrote. “None of the communications … constitute an attempt to influence City officials or official policy.”

The City Auditor argues that this dynamic still qualifies as lobbying.

“City Code does not require activity be initiated by a lobbying entity to conclude that such activity contained attempts to influence City official action,” wrote Auditor Simone Rede in response. “Moreover, for a nonprofit organization to spend thousands of dollars on travel and lodging for top officials to engage in these discussions is inconsistent with merely providing educational information to the City.”

Urban Alchemy currently operates three mass outdoor shelter sites in Portland: The Clinton Triangle Temporary Alternative Shelter Site, Peninsula Crossing Village and Reedway Safe Rest Village.

Staff in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office were identified as communicating the most with Urban Alchemy employees in the lead-up to the contract announcement. Wheeler’s office declined to comment on the investigation’s findings.

Urban Alchemy will not be fined for the violation. Rede suggested the organization instead undergo training on the city’s lobbying rules.

Urban Alchemy has been scrutinized over its government contracts before. San Francisco has granted the nonprofit several no-bid contracts to run homeless service and shelter programs since 2018, based on the city’s own evolving contract policy.