Richard Swerdlow: Walk on By

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

It's not uncommon in San Francisco to encounter an unconscious person lying on the pavement. Richard Swerdlow ponders whether to try to help or walk on by.

Last winter, on a freezing day in Paris, France, photographer Rene Robert was leaving his apartment when he slipped on the icy sidewalk. He lay unconscious on the sidewalk for nine hours until he froze to death, ignored by people who just walked on by, stepping around him on a street in the middle of the city.

Reading about Rene Robert made me remember the times I've walked on by someone sprawled out on a sidewalk. As in Paris, in San Francisco, passers-by look the other way when they see a person seemingly asleep on our sidewalks. Last year, people stepped around a dead body on a Pacific Heights street for 11 hours.

I pass plenty of people lying unconscious on busy sidewalks, and the same thoughts always run through my mind - sleeping, drunk, on drugs, dead? Should I stop and ask if he's OK or maybe take a pulse? But what if this person is crazy or violent? And all those news reports about dangers of exposure to even tiny amounts of fentanyl… easier to just keep walking.

San Francisco emergency services recommend calling 911 if you see an unconscious person on a sidewalk. That's good advice for the suburbs. But you'd be calling 911 20 times on a walk through downtown San Francisco.


Dozens of people die on San Francisco streets each year, mostly from exposure or overdoses. I always feel bad just walking on by, but whether the responsibility to check on all these passed-out people is individual or governmental, it's shocking that we have become so indifferent as to accept stepping around members of our human family laying in our streets as just life in the big city.

Rene Robert might still be taking brilliant photographs if one person didn't dismiss him as some conked-out drunk and offered assistance. I hope next time I come across someone sprawled on a sidewalk, I'll think of him and not just... walk on by.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow is a retired San Francisco teacher.