I knew San Francisco was making me a colder person the day I watched a grown woman cry. It was a long time ago in a Mission laundromat. The woman was homeless and a regular there. She stumbled over and asked for money through beer-soaked breath. I declined. She asked again, until tears ran down her face. I shook my head, looking down at her from my seat on top of the dryer. She eventually went over to a corner and fell asleep. I stuffed my laundry in a bag and went home. 

I had occasion to remember this incident earlier this week, after reading Mission Local’s story about a woman who watched a homeless man die. The writer saw the man laying on a public street in a distressed state but didn’t intervene. A few hours later he was dead. It’s a sad story, but I can’t honestly say I would have done anything different. In a crowded city it can be hard to tell the difference between a call for help and the typical background noise. So I reached out to some charity service providers to get an idea of when to intervene, and what to do if you think someone needs help. 

Jessica Lass from the Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty by issuing grants to effective service providers, said to remember that it’s ok to approach people. 

Not being able to save everyone is no excuse for ignoring a genuine call for help. After all, as Lass told me, “We don’t want to become a community where people just turn a blind eye.”

“Checking in with the person, if it’s safe to do so, is a good first step,” she told me. “Take stock of the situation and see if it’s time for you as a community member to take action.” 

Lass cautioned that because homeless people often sleep in public places, you don’t necessarily need to wake up everyone who is passed out on a park bench. They might just be taking a nap. She said to consider intervening if the person is screaming in pain, acting belligerently, or if you witness an altercation (again: only if it’s safe to do so). If you’re worried about someone who is unresponsive, Lass recommends checking in with a nearby local business. They will often know everyone who hangs out in the area and can tell you if someone’s behavior is normal or alarming. But if it looks like a medical emergency or serious physical altercation, the best course of action is to call 911.  

For non-emergencies, a good option is to call the city’s general services line, 311. Richard Whipple from the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs said to ask for the “HOT team,” which is short for Homeless Outreach Team. They can transport a person who is willing to a designated medical site or sobering center. The HOT team can also help with other services, like getting someone into supportive housing, or helping them obtain identification and public benefits. Other services worth mentioning, Whipple said, are Project Homeless Connect, a monthly event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and the new, appointment-based Everyday Connect at 25 Van Ness Ave. 

Of course, all of those services require the person you're concerned about to be willing and interested in receiving help. Some aren’t, and there isn’t much we can do about that. But not being able to save everyone is no excuse for ignoring a genuine call for help. I probably still won’t be giving away any money in the laundromat, but at least now I know how to connect someone with the services they really need. After all, as Lass told me, “We don’t want to become a community where people just turn a blind eye.”

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