When Do You Call for Help for the Homeless?

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On Valencia Street. (Mission Local)
On Valencia Street. (Mission Local)

More than 7,300 people were homeless in San Francisco at last count. It's all too easy to simply walk by and ignore people in the city. And it's also sometimes hard to tell when to call for help.

Last Friday, Mission Local's Jennifer Quinn wrote about her experience watching Frankie Bizo, 67, die at the corner of 16th and Valencia streets in the Mission.

Today, I watched a homeless man die on 16th and Valencia.

I was eating a salad, 15 feet away. He was lying on a cardboard mat, with his head sliding off a makeshift pillow made of some clothes in a plastic produce bag. I sat and watched him for a minute, wondering if I should call the police.

It was hot, and he was shirtless. At the least, he’d wake up with a nasty sunburn, I and another onlooker thought. I decided he was probably really tired, and as he wasn’t in anyone’s way, I figured I should just let him sleep.

What I didn’t even consider was that he was most likely dehydrated. Severely. And, as it turns out, fatally so.

His arm was bouncing around spasmodically. I thought he might be doing it on purpose, maybe he was listening to some imaginary drum beat in his head. Turns out, I was watching him convulse. Probably at the very moment that his life was leaving his body.

Someone did finally call the police. Not sure who. Several people walked by, seeing him, and shrugging their shoulders. I did the very same thing, even though I did not think of him as a scourge the Mission would be better off without.

And I truly believe that most people walking by would have stopped to help if any of us had thought he was in real, immediate trouble. The truth is, I didn’t know what to do, and I doubt most people do. Calling the cops or 911 seems extreme.

A Daily Dilemma

Quinn's account raises the dilemma that many of us face on a nearly daily basis in our communities — not just San Francisco, but in San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and elsewhere. Those folks we see huddled on the streets, oblivious to what's going on around them — are they really OK? And how can you tell? How far should you go to intervene?

If someone is unresponsive and not breathing it's important to call 911 right away, says Jason Albertson, a clinical social worker and part of San Francisco's Homeless Outreach Team. "If there's any question, please call 911," he says. "They will walk you through attempts to rouse."


To check on whether someone is responsive, you can kneel down near the person.

"We don't stand over someone who is sleeping or supine. We kneel down next to them and say, 'Hey, are you alright.' We don't put hands on people," Albertson said.

If the threat seems less urgent, you can call 311 in most cities. Your call will be referred to emergency respondents or, in some cities, to local groups including the Outreach Team. However, 311 operators are not always in the best position to take detailed descriptions or answer questions, Albertson says.

You can call San Francisco's Homeless Team at any time at (415) 734-4233 to report on someone who may be in distress, homeless or intoxicated. Please include a physical description of the person, so that the mobile team can look for the person if he or she moves. You can also call the San Francisco Mobile Crisis Treatment Team at (415) 970-4000 for people who appear to need mental help.

"Citizens are in a great position to be the eyes and ears," Albertson says. "Maybe only one in ten times will someone accept help. But one time in 20 saves someone's life."

The Homeless Outreach Team eulogized 118 people who passed away in 2013. Albertson says he personally knew at least 20.

"There have been fairly substantial demographic changes in San Francisco, and it's more difficult for people who have not resided in town for a long time to perform acts of care," Albertson said. "It's all the more important for people to remind themselves that everyone came from a mother, a father, a sister and a brother."

There are several local groups in San Francisco that also assist the homeless.

San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team (415) 734-4233
The Outreach Team is a collaboration between Community Awareness & Treatment Services, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency. Earlier this year the Homeless Team integrated the Mobile Assistance Patrol.

San Francisco Mobile Crisis Treatment Team (415) 970-4000
The Crisis Team offers psychiatric crisis intervention for adults currently residing San Francisco.

Community Ambassadors 311
The Ambassadors are part of a public safety program operating in several neighborhoods.