Money from the voter-approved Measure H has begun flowing into county coffers and is funding a variety of programs to address the Countywide homeless crisis. Those projects are taking a variety of forms but the rollout hasn’t been without critics and at the local level, it’s easy to find people who think more should be done right now.
What “more” is varies wildly, from arresting people en masse to building government-funded shelters, but when it comes to opinions on the public safety response the reality is that change will be slower than anyone would like.
The pace of change isn’t because officials are dragging their feet. There’s no shortage of ideas within City Hall, the Police Department and the Fire Department. There’s no lack of will to pursue innovative ideas and implement out of the box solutions. Almost everyone that actually handles homelessness as an issue sees the need for a new approach and many people are actually converging on some similar kinds of ideas such as modified emergency responses that could pair medical aid with mental health workers and possibly additional services.
However, the severity of the current crisis doesn’t diminish the responsibility public safety officials have to ensure their behaviors are both legal and ethical. This is important because contrary to some of the views espoused on social media, being homeless doesn’t undercut an individual’s legal rights or our responsibility to treat them with dignity.
On the legal front, there are state, county and local laws that govern the behavior of both police officers and firefighters. These are particularly restrictive on the fire service when it comes to dispatching medical aid. Locally, SMFD is required to send out two paramedics per response unit and even their small beach carts are staffed by both an EMT and a paramedic. They’re also bound by regulations that govern where they must take someone for treatment based on their symptoms, even if they are just self-reported.
Similarly, police officers are bound by a host of rules all the way up to constitutional civil rights protections. While many residents don’t seem to care about the civil liberties of homeless individuals, they are still entitled to the same protections afford to anyone else including the right to access public space and maintain personal property.
Even if given carte blanche to reimagine their services, public safety officers have a moral responsibility to ensure changes actually increase public safety.
In most cases, governments can move forward with regulatory experiments to gauge potential outcomes. However, when you’re dealing with an unresponsive individual lying on the street, a change in protocol could be life and death.
You certainly don’t need a full ambulance to handle someone just napping on the sidewalk or even to ask a drunk to move out of a doorway. But if you don’t provide the full medical response and the individual is having a heart attack or stroke, the result could be deadly.
Good public safety employees aren’t willing to gamble or possibly sacrifice a life for the sake of money or expediency so they won’t rush into a new service model without due thought. That’s not to say they aren’t working on it. Several pilot programs have already been tested and more are in development, but local agencies are trying to do more than just appease the angry, they’re trying to develop a service model that can become the industry standard for years to come.
For residents that means we’re going to have to be patient, have some understanding for the challenges addressing homelessness and compassion for those experiencing it.