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About five months ago, I was getting a haircut in East Village when the stylists started talking about a man outside who was digging around in the bushes near one of their cars. I looked up just as he laid down on the edge of the sidewalk.
My wife and I moved into the neighborhood nearly five years ago. On any given day, I’d estimate there are easily 250 homeless people who fall asleep on the streets within a five-block radius of our place. So this seemed neither rare, nor urgent. Nonetheless, I told my hairdresser I’d check it out.
I went outside and found a young man who was malnourished and on drugs. He had rolled off the sidewalk, becoming wedged in between the curb and the front tire of the car. Approaching him slowly, I asked if he needed help, though, it was obvious he did. He looked up at me, weeping, and only asked if he could use my cell phone.
Between that phone call and when I left him about three hours later, we held out for any shelter to answer their phone to let me know there was a bed for him. None answered. We tried the non-emergency line of the San Diego Police Department hoping to get guidance from the Homeless Outreach Team. Our call was never answered.
When I called 911, I was told that an ambulance could not be sent unless I could determine whether the young man was a medical or psychological emergency. How could I know? We held out for a regular patrol car to be dispatched, only to be later told there weren’t enough and that the one previously assigned had been rerouted to a different incident – we were told a second would be on the way. It never came.
In the end, he was coming down from his high as private security chased him off from public space, berating him for eating in front of a 7-Eleven.
The young man insisted that he appreciated my help, but he eventually told me he was moving on. The shame I felt, both personally and as a citizen unable to get him the help I was told would be there for those who seek it, stays with me. Every time I told him there was a way to help – that it was just another phone call away – I was made a liar.
The problem is not that services don’t exist – you can grab the Downtown San Diego Partnership’s homeless services contact card, which includes a long list of homeless service provider contacts from just about every one of the organization’s Clean & Safe team member patrolling the streets. But when services like shelters are desperately understaffed at night, or when the Homeless Outreach Team only runs a daytime shift – and nobody, anywhere, answers – they may as well not. That has to change.
We can start by acknowledging that solving homelessness is not a nine-to-five job, and in doing so, ask the city to provide the necessary resources to the SDPD for expanding the Homeless Outreach Team. People who live on the streets, and those who want to help them, need to know that help is there any time of the day or night. Right now, when you call the Homeless Outreach Team number, you are asked to leave a voicemail and there’s no information about how long it might be before someone will call you back. Calling the number leaves you feeling hopeless.
It would also be helpful if the city did a better job of getting the word out about the existence of the Homeless Outreach Team so people who want to help someone who’s homeless know what number to call and exactly what kind of resources the team can provide once they show up.
With round-the-clock interaction, the Homeless Outreach Team members can learn the dynamics of the individual pockets of our local homeless communities. They’ll come to recognize faces, and their faces will in turn be recognized. They can learn to determine when personality differences may lead to an argument, when an argument may lead to an altercation – or worse. As they become a constant but unintimidating presence, they may come to be trusted arbiters of conflicts, able to de-escalate tensions before more drastic measures are required from patrol dispatches.
And if our concern for crime within the homeless population is genuine, then more presence should have at least some deterring effect. Contact and interaction by Homeless Outreach Team members needs to be a 24-hour-a-day operation – both for those officers we’re asking to do an increasingly difficult job, as well as the population they’re best trained to serve.
Asking our service providers to tackle this problem without better methods and greater resources shortchanges the greater difference they could be making for our most vulnerable population. The broader community – and especially our homeless citizens – cannot afford that failure.
Andy Kopp is an East Village resident. Kopp’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.