I was walking down the street in the Tenderloin today, on my way to visit a dear friend. For those who don’t know me, I am currently undocumented due to fleeing my violent (and legally American) husband. It is a complicated mess, and one that means I have to have as little to do with the authorities as possible, even in my beloved San Francisco. That means not calling cops unless absolutely unavoidable. I don’t trust them anyway but sometimes who else are you doing to call? What else can we do except call for help?
As I walked down the street I heard a desperate wailing in extreme distress. A person, half under a blanket, a young woman, was keening and crying so absolutely in desperation and pain that it broke my heart. I looked back over my shoulder wondering what I could do. I mean, I can’t call the cops, or at least would rather not take that risk, but she sounded as if she was in actual trouble, and possibly in need of an ambulance or at least some help. The man walking behind me, in his early 50s, tall and well built looked at me and said:
But what can we do? What can you do? I mean, it is so sad…but what can you do?”
I looked at him and we both stopped and looked towards the wailing woman on the floor, rolling and crying so loudly and desperately that the only time I was reminded of was when I had lost a baby, or been desperately beaten up, or someone had died. It was acute distress. The man seemed kind. We looked at each other and I said:
“We could call an ambulance or the cops, I suppose.”
The man nodded. I said “I guess I am a little afraid to go over there, though.” He got out his phone and said confidently and with conviction:
“I will do it. I will do it. It’s ok. You go on. I’ll go wait with her.”
I asked him his name, he told me. Let’s call him Fred. I told Fred my name and for some reason the words, devoid of Christianity but utterly meant escaped from my mouth.
“Bless you, Fred!”
Help was on the way. Isn’t that all we want, to know that help is on the way? The moment was complete. There was a need. Pain. Two people who heard that call for help, that cry of agony, and one saying to the other ‘let’s do something about this.’ This is the way Cities get fixed, not with politicians and their point scoring, not with bloated charities and the constrictions on compassion that surround them, but with two people making things better on a minute personal level, for a suffering, homeless and desperate stranger. She will never know about that moment, I suppose, and what passed between me and Fred when we decided to send help her way, and she doesn’t need to know. All I hope is that the plan we came up with was good enough, and the help that was sent was enough to make a positive and meaningful change. I would have called for help for her, but it would have been dangerous for me. It takes a team to make things better. My decisiveness and Fred’s willingness to do the rest made a real difference.
This positive difference of San Franciscans helping other San Franciscans is not evidenced in the increasing criminalization of victims in the City. Calling in the National Guard and the Highway Patrol, which can arrest undocumented people, despite the sanctuary status of the City is not helping. It is fighting suffering with lack of compassion and causing more suffering to the most needy. Shutting down the harm reduction center in the Tenderloin was not helping, it was further othering and criminalizing and yes, risking the lives of the most vulnerable and needy of the City’s inhabitants.
I am not cop caller but sometimes, what else can we do? It was the only way this person was going to get to an emergency room and some help. I had to believe that good would come of it, because the only other option was to see her suffering on the street, and to do absolutely nothing at all. I am not able to risk a violent reaction born out of fear or mental illness. I am not equipped for it. I wish I could have done something else, but it was all I could do to try and get her some help. I just hoped the cops and the ambulance actually helped her. I suspect despite this visible push towards criminalization, they actually did something positive, and she got the medical assistance she clearly needed.
Perhaps it is a question people need to ask more, rather than how they can punish, control and judge, but instead:
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?