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Mobile App Connects Responders to Those Having Mental Health Crisis


Rickey pushes himself up slowly, grabs the leash tethered to the side of his walker and takes a few steps. His dog, a terrier named Madman, perks his ears up and follows him. Rickey pauses and looks across the street at a rundown building.

"That was a Blues Club," he says. "The police station was a jazz club. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, we had all them," says the 69-year-old.

But the far-off look in his eyes isn't reality. The nightlife that once electrified the Tenderloin District of San Francisco is no more.

Illicit drugs are dealt openly on the streets of the Tenderloin, a neighborhood in San Francisco, California. The Tenderloin has become a corrupt, high-crime neighborhood with homeless people lining the sidewalks.

Police statistics found that crime on one specific block in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco is 35 times higher than other city districts.
Police statistics found that crime on one specific block in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco is 35 times higher than other city districts.

High crime rates

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic and San Francisco police statistics show violent crime in just one block of the Tenderloin "is 35 times higher than the rest of the city." In addition, one aggravated assault occurs every day and robbery statistics are even higher.

But several years ago, trendy businesses priced out of an adjacent area, brought property in Tenderloin. The gentrification of the area is starting, but it's created another problem. More homeless filter onto the streets as real estate gets more expensive.

"Oh, hey, there you are." A guy wearing black-rimmed glasses and a deep purple T-shirt and purple vest greets Rickey.

Jacob Savage is a community activist who founded the group Concrn.

Savage, who describes himself as a “privileged white guy,” found common ground with Rickey -- and other Tenderloin residents -- by playing a trumpet. He’s never without the instrument.

The two men -- who couldn’t look more different -- harmonize together in a duet. Rickey’s fingers snap to the beat of Savage's horn, then he starts belting out, "Stand by Me," a popular ballad by Ben E. King. It's a calm, fun moment in Savage's otherwise serious day.

The Tenderloin section of San Francisco, California is in the process of gentrification but the street scenes defy it.
The Tenderloin section of San Francisco, California is in the process of gentrification but the street scenes defy it.

Building trust

As a 15-year-old growing up in wealthy, tech-savvy Palo Alto, California, Savage became a police cadet, and spent six years riding along on calls. But he says the criminal arrests and prison sentences didn’t satisfy his passion to help others.

A few years ago, Savage brought Concrn to the Tenderloin, through a mobile app and a team of responders.

Through the app, witnesses report incidents of mental crises with descriptions of the person, location and other notes.

“When you submit that,” says Savage, “it goes into our dispatching platform” where responders are assigned to the incident.

They arrive on the scene and offer mental health or drug abuse assistance before police arrive to make arrests. Often that first meeting includes only a conversation if the Tenderloin resident refuses treatment. Savage is fine with that.

"It’s building trust and having a trusting relationship so when they are actually ready to get better, we’re there," he says.

Each Concrn responder completes 20 hours of classroom instruction and 80 hours on the street. Fifty people have completed the training.

In the past few years, they’ve responded to 2,000 crises. The ultimate goal is to train residents as responders, so the community is self-sufficient and doesn’t need Concrn. But that intention is years away.

Police statistics found that crime on one specific block in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco is 35 times higher than other city districts.
Police statistics found that crime on one specific block in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco is 35 times higher than other city districts.

Carrying a trumpet

Savage gets a call for a crisis several blocks away and he walks there with his trumpet at his side.

When he arrives, police are still there, but no disturbance. He approaches some men and mentions Concrn."What kind of music do you play?"they ask. He starts a jazz number and they smile.

Then a police officer taps Savage on his shoulder. There’s a guy police can’t handle right now – could he see what he can do?

Savage walks over to a thin young man dressed in black wearing a magenta scarf around his head. He’s bopping and weaving and talking to no one in particular. Jacob interrupts the constant gibberish."Hey brother, what’s your name buddy?"

"Eddie" is the only word Jacob can understand in the restless man’s ongoing monologue.

Savage thinks he’s on crystal meth and asks if him if he would like to go to a clinic.

Eddie keeps blabbering but doesn't answer. Savage sees the cigarette lighter he’s holding and asks if he would like a cigarette. Savage contacts another Concrn responder and starts playing his trumpet as a beacon.

Savage explains, "Cigarettes are a last resort to use when people are going so fast we can’t understand them or they are panicking."

David, the other responder, finds their location from the trumpet blast and hands Eddie the cigarette, which he half eats.

Savage and David spend several hours with Eddie. They learn he’s a composer.

Eddie offers to sell Savage his black leather outfit. They part, hoping to meet on the street again. Maybe by then Eddie will be ready to accept Concrn’s intervention.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy, Silver World Medal, AP Broadcaster’s Best of Show, and Clarion award-winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous TV, Radio, Multimedia, and Digital awards for her TV/Web coverage of Muslim Portraits, The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.  Presutti was VOA’s Nathanson Scholar to the Aspen Institute and VOA’s delegate to the U.S. government’s Executive Leadership Program (ELP).

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