Each year, two million people with mental health conditions are jailed, the majority of whom are non-violent and will not receive the treatment they need while behind bars. But as Fusion reports, a crisis response nonprofit in San Francisco wants to break this cycle of incarceration with an app that lets people report incidents of "individuals suffering from homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse" to them instead of to the police.
The nonprofit and its app are called Concrn, and are currently available for use in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. According to Concrn’s website, its goal is to connect those who are suffering—20 to 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population has a form of severe mental illness, and about a third of all people with mental illnesses have substance abuse problems [PDF]—"to the resources they need.”
Police are trained to address crime, but they’re rarely equipped to address mental health-related crises—and when they do, the encounters can escalate and turn deadly. To avoid these worst-case scenarios, Concrn’s app allows people to request a Compassionate Responder to the site, who’s trained in de-escalation and can connect the individual with shelters and services. (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can contact Concrn's dispatch line at 415-801-3737.) When Concrn volunteers aren't responding to calls, they make rounds around the neighborhood, touching base with locals to make sure everything's OK.
Not everyone agrees with Concrn’s approach, or finds it to be effective. In a San Francisco Magazine article published earlier this year, Tenderloin Station Captain Teresa Ewins said that reporting these types of crises to Concrn rather than the police creates a “huge safety issue” for the community. (Concrn specifically states that their app should only be used for emotional and health crises, not actual violent crimes.) Plus, while Concrn’s volunteers are able to provide resources like shelter beds and TB tests, they have no way of ensuring people actually utilize them.
Others, however, think nonprofits like Concrn are a step in the right direction. “There’s no two ways about it,” Jim Zelaya-Wagner, the director of San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team, told KALW, San Francisco’s public radio station. “We’ve got 30 outreach workers, and we’re looking at a city of 6000 to 7000 homeless individuals, based on last year’s count. That’s a lot of homeless folks. So, hey, the more people that can help, the better.”
Concrn was launched in 2014, and its founders hope for the app to someday be available for all San Francisco residents. In the meantime, Concrn is seeking more volunteers to help the Tenderloin District's residents, both to help respond to calls and for community outreach when the lines are less busy.