Editorial: Engaging the public in helping others

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday September 6, 2023
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Mayor London Breed has announced a public education campaign to inform people how to help those in crisis. Photo: John Ferrannini
Mayor London Breed has announced a public education campaign to inform people how to help those in crisis. Photo: John Ferrannini

This week San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the city's Department of Emergency Management unveiled a new public education campaign about how to help people in crisis. This is a good step, especially as drug overdose deaths remain at crisis levels. Too many times people may see someone on the street who is experiencing a crisis and not know what to do. This, of course, is in addition to other things the city is doing, such as specialized street response teams that serve as alternatives to law enforcement and reduce the need for a police response to people experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

It's all part of the new public education component for the city's Coordinated Street Response Program. According to a news release from the mayor's office, it will help the community understand what to do, who to call, and what happens when San Francisco responds to people experiencing a crisis on the streets.

"We want San Franciscans to know that it is OK to call when you see someone experiencing a crisis on the streets," stated DEM Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll. "If you are worried about someone's safety, call 911 for emergencies and one of our highly trained dispatchers will send the right help. For urgent but non-emergency situations, contact 311 to get connected to city services and info."

It may seem simple, but many residents are concerned that if they call 911, police will respond when perhaps an alternative to law enforcement is more appropriate. The city states that 911 should be called for crime, fire, overdoses, medical emergencies, and mental health crises. For other cases, 311 should be utilized for support for unhoused people, mobility and access issues, encampments, street or sidewalk cleaning, food security problems, debris pickup and syringes and hazardous waste.

In light of our recent editorial on city-approved funding for three Wellness Hubs (which are not yet up and running), the public awareness campaign adds another layer of assistance for people on the streets. It's in addition to the Street Crisis Response Teams, which have been operating since November 2020; the Bridge and Engagement Services Team Neighborhoods, which provides rapid, trauma-informed behavioral health assessments and interventions; the Street Overdose Response Team and Post Overdose Engagement Team; and the Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team. Most of these have responded to thousands of calls that previously had been addressed by law enforcement, according to the mayor's office. That's a positive development.

Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man who is director of health at the Department of Public Health, stated that the public education campaign will be a benefit to those in need. "We want our residents to know what to do when they see a person in crisis on our streets and to be aware of the vital services provided through our multi-department Coordinated Street Response Program," he stated. "We want people to know that a simple call just might get someone on the road to recovery."

The mayor's office noted that the public education campaign was developed with the help of service providers and advocacy groups. The city then worked with residents, including seniors, youth, people with disabilities, merchants, and neighborhood groups. People who speak languages other than English were also consulted.

Look for posters, bus ads, and digital ads as the new campaign rolls out. As Breed stated, "It is vital that the community understands how and when to call 911 and 311 for help, and that they feel empowered to do so."

There's a related development as well: Narcan, the opioid overdose treatment, is now available to buy without a prescription. The federal Food and Drug Administration approved it for over-the-counter sale in March. While harm reduction advocates and agencies have provided the treatment for some time, the news this week that anyone can purchase the nasal spray may also help prevent overdose deaths. KRON-TV reported Tuesday that it costs less than $50 — and while insurance may or may not cover it (a state bill would require insurers to cover the cost, but that is pending in the Legislature), it's an option some people may want to utilize.

The new public education campaign is just one more way for residents to help each other. Instead of vilifying people on the street through videos on social media, people should make those calls for assistance.

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