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."