My husband and I went for a bike ride last Sunday. As we approached the Guy West bridge on the Sacramento State campus, we saw a woman wearing underwear, a tank top, a small fuzzy shawl and high heels.
She was staggering, talking incoherently, agitated and rubbing her head for no apparent reason. From my uneducated perspective, she seemed drunk, high or mentally ill. Clearly, she was vulnerable and I worried for her.
Caring citizens also need to know what to do in our everyday encounters. We can’t look away while waiting for elected officials and others to build the essential infrastructure.
If she had been a dog, I would have jumped off my bike and confidently intervened to help guide her home or to safety. But I do not know what to do when I come across vulnerable people. It’s an experience that is a near-daily occurrence.
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I’m a lobbyist, not a mental health professional or social worker. I don’t know if or when to call for law enforcement’s help. It’s not illegal to be homeless or vulnerable. I worry that police involvement might make things worse, not better.
Last week, I gave food to a man outside my office near the Capitol. He was mumbling, unkempt and stumbling. But when I told a friend about it, he said some experts advise against giving money or food. Apparently the theory is that they’ll use it to scrape by and avoid getting more comprehensive services.
Others say we should treat people as we would want to be treated by making eye contact and asking folks if they’re OK. This makes sense, but then what? Is that really all we should do?
Recently, my fearless friend Christine Dugger, a lobbyist and mother of two in East Sacramento, acted on her loving instincts and engaged a homeless family she decided not to walk past. Christine is trying to connect this family to what they need and deserve.
She is learning firsthand what they are up against, the barriers they face, what different service providers do and don’t do. She’s discovering a much more challenging landscape than she’d ever imagined.
What Christine is doing definitely is right. But it’s a lot to take on and it won’t work for everyone or every situation. Some people won’t take the help. And a lot of kind strangers aren’t ready or able to twist their lives into the pretzel Christine has made of hers. God bless her.
The city has announced new shelters opening soon and I have confidence in our leaders’ efforts to put in place the complicated set of resources and expertise needed to meet the challenge of sustainably assisting more than 3,000 homeless people, each with their own unique needs.
Christine is learning about laws that should be changed, fees that should be reduced, and rules that should be kicked to the curb. This town is lousy with lobbyists who should help pursue these policy changes.
But caring citizens also need to know what to do in our everyday encounters. We can’t look away while waiting for elected officials and others to build the essential infrastructure.
We need advice on how to safely channel our concern for our homeless and mentally ill neighbors – the woman we passed on Sunday, the man outside my office, the dozens of people we’ll encounter tomorrow between our homes and workplaces.
I don’t want to live in a Sacramento where we become accustomed to walking past people who are clearly in jeopardy. But to avoid this loss of our humanity, our instincts need informing. We need communitywide education that gives us enough knowledge to build confidence that acting on our instincts won’t harm the very people we are trying to help. Somebody tell us what to do, stat.
Jennifer Fearing of Elmhurst runs Fearless Advocacy, a lobbying and consulting firm that represents numerous nonprofits. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.