On Valencia Street

Today, I watched a homeless man die on 16th and Valencia.

I was eating a salad, 15 feet away. He was lying on a cardboard mat, with his head sliding off a makeshift pillow made of some clothes in a plastic produce bag.  I sat and watched him for a minute, wondering if I should call the police.

It was hot, and he was shirtless. At the least, he’d wake up with a nasty sunburn, I and another onlooker thought. I decided he was probably really tired, and as he wasn’t in anyone’s way, I figured I should just let him sleep.

What I didn’t even consider was that he was most likely dehydrated. Severely. And, as it turns out, fatally so.

His arm was bouncing around spasmodically. I thought he might be doing it on purpose, maybe he was listening to some imaginary drum beat in his head. Turns out, I was watching him convulse. Probably at the very moment that his life was leaving his body.

Someone did finally call the police. Not sure who. Several people walked by, seeing him, and shrugging their shoulders. I did the very same thing, even though I did not think of him as a scourge the Mission would be better off without.

And I truly believe that most people walking by would have stopped to help if any of us had thought he was in real, immediate trouble. The truth is, I didn’t know what to do, and I doubt most people do. Calling the cops or 911 seems extreme.

Firefighters were the first to respond, and after rolling him over and starting CPR, even giving the defibrulator a try, they quickly realized it was too late. They put a yellow plastic emergency blanket over him, and covered his head with his jacket.

Then the cops came. And the coroner. After I gave my statement to the cops, I had to go pick up my little kids from school.  By the time I came back, maybe half an hour later, the whole scene had been cleared.

Frankie Bizo — or something similar, as a neighboring merchant told me he was called — was taken off to the morgue. He was 67 years old, and considered a serious alcoholic. I heard he turned up in the neighborhood, fully cleaned up and looking good a couple of times. But then quickly fell back into his old ways, and was back on the street, where he had presumably been for years.  He has a sister with kids in Oakland.

All that was left of him on the street was the dirty cardboard mat, a dingy, black jacket and crumpled, red T-shirt,  a couple of uneaten cartons of decent looking leftovers, and an empty school-size milk carton.

I called an aquaintance of mine from the Mission Neighborhood Health Center. They were wonderful. They walked right up from their headquarters on Capp Street, and helped me ask around about the man’s identity.

The day of the death, they had just been on rounds with the new Mission Community Ambassadors. As part of a brand new pilot program active in a couple places around the city, a handful of members of the loosely connected 16th Street BART Plaza community now have the paid job of just checking in on people, making sure they are OK, safe, and know where they are going. Tourists, local residents, and homeless alike. Pretty amazing program. But they had turned down Valencia Street before crossing, and didn’t see poor Frankie in time.

A sad, eye-opening moment among many in the Mission. But the one lesson I have learned, from Laura Guzman of the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, is that it’s OK to just tap a homeless person on the shoulder and ask if he or she is OK. They won’t likely mind, even if they were sleeping. And be aware on hot days that really drunk or sick people may not realize how dehydrated they are, and that can have fatal consequences.

You can also now reach the Community Ambassadors via 311.  At least until the end of August, when the program loses its first round of funding.

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  1. I was homeless for 6 or 7 years. I am 34 year old, former Marine, now housed in Boulder, CO through the satellite Denver CIRT program. I was a foster child in Chesterfield, VA; and Social Services kept taking me out of my home.

    There doesn’t seem to be much advocacy for the homeless. – Not too many real solutions. I would like to change that; and as part of the solution – I started my own landscaping business…partly to learn the mechanics of what it takes to start and maintain and grow a small business; and partly as a way of facing my own fears; and partly as stepping stone to much bigger and more impact-ful dreams.

  2. Unfortunately, it wasn’t waiting too long to call 911 that took him.

    The years of enabling not only killed him, but made the later part of his a life a time of suffering. We need to see the sadistic side of the enabling, helping people to hurt themselves and be miserable instead of getting their life back.

    1. How in the heck to you know, from this story, that he was enabled? Let alone harmed by it? Your MO seems to be “judge first, ask questions later.” Really discouraging.

  3. Calling 911 doesn’t always help. I witnessed an elderly man trip as he was crossing the street and hit his head on a parking meter. He went down hard. I called 911 and the first question out of the operator’s mouth was, “Does he look homeless?” She didn’t send an ambulance or even a cop. Eventually someone else, was able to flag down a patrol car. (And the last time I tried calling the Mission station directly about someone I couldn’t tell for sure for was in trouble but thought could use a welfare check, no one answered the phone.) It’s one thing to see someone on the street and not realize they’re in trouble, and another to try to get help and get no one to respond.

  4. May Frankie rest in peace and may his friends and family and the people that were there recover from this tragic loss. Its not just heat though…its cold too…anything really because they are used to suffering. We shouldn’t ignore them. Don’t let them fade into the scenery…please. Make them smile, listen to them speak….shake their hand, give them a hug if they are willing….you could make their day and maybe, just maybe prevent another incident/death like Frankie’s. (To my friends please read this…prepare for a little emotion, it is very sad)

  5. i am homeless for nyears too and i am still … how can they just watch ??? i cant get it !!! rest in peace franky

    1. I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I really was torn about whether I should talk to him or just let him sleep. I know that it’s hard and dangerous for many homeless (especially women) to sleep at night, and that sleeping during the day in plain view in a busy place is the safest way to get rest. But that leaves passersby in the difficult position of trying to figure out if you are just sleeping or if you are in medical trouble.

      As a homeless person, what do you think passersby should do if they see someone lying down/sleeping on a mat on the sidewalk?

  6. Someone very dear to me died in a subway station because people thought he was drunk bum. He was in his work overalls and was having a heart attack. Please, dear people, always err on the side of caution. Call 911. My experience is that the good people they send always appreciate the chance to help a life.

  7. I ask people if they’re okay. If they’re obviously not okay, e.g. passed out, I call the SFPD at 415-553-0123. It’s quicker than 311, and the police dispatchers decide whether to send the fire dept paramedics or the cops.

  8. Thanks Laura for writing this. You are a compassionate person and a good writer. I am a homeless person and advocate and thank you for your concern, conscience, and sense of community. With attitudes such as yours there will come solutions to this result of the economic transfer of wealth from poor to rich that keeps on accelerating in this country.

  9. Call 311 if you are not sure what to do. Those operators are awesome and will connect you to 911 if deemed necessary. It’s an awesome service that we pay for for a reason!!

  10. Thank you for writing this and giving us more awareness of the life of a homeless person. I am in tears. In the past I have given out packets to homeless people with the bare necessities, one being water. I once (with a friend) called 911 because we saw a hopeless person who did not look well. -we actually asked walgreens to call because we did not have a phone on us. turned out he was fine but it was the worst feeling to know that that person has NO ONE when we do. people don’t deserve to live like that. i understand some may choose to but i’m guessing the majority don’t. i am sorry you had to witness something so sad but thank you for sharing your experience.

  11. It can be a thin line between personal freedom/space and a serious threat to a well being. We all need to do our part to intervene respectfully.

  12. Dear Jennifer,
    Thank you for posting writing this. I am pleased that you got to meet Laura Guzman she is an angel.

    Suggestion don’t stop with just this posting. Talk to Laura and learn and write more so more of us can learn how to help others less fortunate. Your writng talents may just save someone else.

  13. Sometimes just asking “Are you ok?”, reminds a person to consider the question. A good thing to do once in a while.

  14. Thanks for sharing the lessons learned from this sad experience. I’ve shared the ‘how to check-in/on’ strategy with friends since. …. And it has started a conversation.

    Really highlights the benefit of programs like the Ambassadors to augment and enhance neighborhood services.

  15. This story breaks my heart. I myself have called 911 many times when I felt concerned about someone’s well being, homeless or not. I remember a year or so ago when I was walking to a bus stop in Berkeley a homeless guy who may have had mental illness was acting strange in the median of San Pablo. I called the Berkeley police department to inform them what was happening because I was concerned of his welfare. The operator on the phone was so cold. She had a Lot of attitude and just didn’t seem to take me seriously or give a damn.
    People need to be more educated and aware that every homeless person has there own personal story on how they got where they are and many are not at fault or any help it. People need to have more empathy & compassion for them. The homeless need more & more beneficial resources.

  16. So terribly sad. A trick I’ve used to help me get over the discomfort of asking a homeless person if they’re okay is to do it under the guise of offering them a bit of food (I usually keep a granola bar or two in my bag). I believe Laura that most people would be okay with passerby asking if they’re okay, but it makes me feel less awkward in my approach.

    1. Yes, but it is tricky. Sleep is a rare comodity for people in this situation, and I don’t want to deprive them of it unless there is an obvious need to.

      1. Many homeless people sleep out in the open in busy places because it is safer than sleeping at night and in quiet places, where they are at more risk of being attacked or at least hassled by ne’er-do-wells.

  17. Last time I tried to convey concern for someone like that I was almost stabbed.
    “Hey man, are you okay?”
    [pointing a knife at me]

    okeydokey. Like I said, last time- in every sense of the word.

  18. I call if they seem in distress. (I will try to wake them and ask) but the EMTs get pissed if you call about a “chronic inebriant” so be prepared to give them a lecture about their job.

    1. Before you lecture me about my job, first let me explain what we are here for. If you have an emergency, I.e. Heart attack, stroke, impending delivery, etc., we stabilize you and try to get you to the hospital within 20 minutes to increase your chance of survival. If we are called to take “a regular” to the hospital, then uncle Joe who’s having the big one has to wait for another ambulance to free up. We are not a taxi service to the hospital. If the citizen, drunk or not, has no urgent medical issue, 911should not be called. If you want to help the homeless, call the homeless advocates or a shelter but don’t call 911 because someone is sleeping on the sidewalk. It’s not a good use of our already maxed out resources.

      1. Emt with a heart…. I think the larger problem here, is ascertaining whether there IS a health emergency. It’s so difficult to tell, when the person is just lying there. This article is proof of that. What do we do then? I don’t think the person you replied to is in the habit of calling 911 for every sleeping homeless person….however sometimes, something just seems wrong. Do we just step over the person and “assume” he/she is OK? If this were a professionally dressed person lying on the sidewalk not moving, we would certainly call 911. This is the grey area. The population who do make the sidewalk their home are difficult to guage. I would like to think that I WOULD dial 911 if I truly felt a homeless person was in trouble. That’s where that tap on the shoulder comes in.

      2. Thanks, EMT With a Heart, for what you do! Yes, it sounds like 311 is the best answer for now. It’s too hard a job to ask regular passersby to decide what an actual medical emergency is.

        1. You have to be kidding me. If 911 is called then emt, police or fire should respond regardless. That’s your job! Last time I checked those jobs were paid by state and by the taxpayers (aka use). Sorry that it’s taking time out of your day to respond to a “homeless man that might be drunk or dead” and you had to give a free ride (ambulance rides are a bit pricey) to a hospital. I appreciate all the service men and women but once again you get paid to do your job so do it. Before you say “say that after Uncle John didn’t get that ride because we were responding to a call involving a homeless man”. Save it bro, I see sooo many EMTs just driving around.

  19. I would be very curious to know whether any of the homeless advocacy groups have recommendations for when to check on folks. I generally leave people be if they a) have some sort of intentional bedding and b) are visibly breathing.

    I’ve called 911 many times, but from your description I don’t know that I would have. The cardboard might have made me think that he was sleeping there on purpose.