If you live in San Francisco or have spent enough time in the city, the following scene is probably familiar to you. You’re walking down the street, when all of a sudden you see an individual in worn down clothing screaming, what often sounds like nonsense, at the top of their lungs. A typical human response is to dodge the situation by crossing the street and avoiding eye contact, or calling emergency services like 911 or 311. If a bypasser takes action, they typically defer to calling the police, assuming these trained keepers of the law know how to best handle a street crisis.
However, that’s often not the case. In San Francisco mental health problems, not crime, actually account for an astounding 80 percent of all calls received by police dispatch. The Tenderloin neighborhood in particular has rampant issues with homelessness and drug abuse, mostly stemming from pervasive mental health issues. But emergency response is not equipped to provide the mental health support and follow on care necessary to help these members of our community address the root issue and get back on their feet.
Jacob Savage, the co-founder of Concrn, grew up just 35 miles south of San Francisco in Palo Alto. During his teenage years he received an opportunity that he couldn’t resist – the chance to become a cadet in the Palo Alto police department. He couldn’t have been more thrilled to have the opportunity to keep his city safe. Cadet training was rigorous, and Jacob spent hour upon hour riding shotgun in the police car with his fellow officers as he learned the ropes.
Once he graduated high school, he went off to college in Santa Cruz. In a new town surrounded by different types of people, he began to see the world differently and to question whether or not police enforcement was, in fact, improving the safety and well being of our communities in the best way possible. When he came back from college and regrouped with the Palo Alto officers, it was clear his dream of joining the police force was dwindling.
Life led him to a music festival in Eugene, Oregon, where Jacob encountered the White Bird Clinic, a different type of emergency response system. White Bird Clinic trained members of the community to intervene crises in a safe, supportive and nonjudgmental way. He left the festival inspired. This methodology could be the way to keep communities safe without defaulting to standard police practices like incarceration or hospitalization, which are not the right outcomes for every instance of 911 response.
The founding team launched Concrn in 2014, a mobile 911 alternative for neighbors in crisis. They built an app, which allows any citizen to place a location-based crisis report on their mobile device, just as easily as they would call a Lyft. On the backend, Concrn receives these reports at centralized dispatch where they take immediate next steps to triage the situation and ensure it doesn’t escalate to violence. Initially, they contact the reporter to find out more information about the crisis, and then send community members they have trained in compassionate response out to mediate the situation. Once the situation is de-escalated, Concrn coordinates with other local service providers and city agencies who can support that person through behavioral help versus criminal justice or unnecessary hospitalization.
About a year into the project, Jacob met Neil Shah in the Fall of 2015 at a Local Homeless Coordinating Board meeting in San Francisco. Neil was inspired by the concept of providing a compassionate alternative to 911, and joined the Board of Concrn to successfully launch the San Francisco pilot. The idea behind Concrn hit close to home for Neil, who grew up with mental health crises in his family and personal mental health and substance use issues which led to multiple run-ins with the criminal justice system. After graduating from Stanford, he had originally started his career in the Tenderloin working for a nonprofit providing opportunity to homeless youth. Within a year of connecting with Concrn, though, Neil was leading strategy and development for the tech nonprofit and became a lead street responder. In the Fall of 2016, he joined the full time as the Executive Director of Concrn with the goal of growing the organization to have maximum impact.
Concrn treats emergency response differently. Concrn’s volunteers stem from a variety of places; some are residents of the Tenderloin, others work in social services, and others are tech workers who want to give back. These responders are passionate about their community, and each dedicate 20 classroom hours and 80 hours of on-the-street training before becoming certified compassionate responders.
For the past year Concrn has been running a pilot in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, and with its model and technology proven, will begin to scale its tech functionality and reach. Because Concrn is a location-based mobile app, the tech nonprofit often dispatches responders faster than police arrive to the scene of the crisis. Once responders are dispatched, they head out in teams of two, where they utilize various compassionate response practices to get the person at risk to calm down. These include everything from throwing a football, to playing the trumpet. Concrn’s passionate response techniques stem from proven research at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research.
While Concrn is a police alternative, by no means does the organization intend to replace established emergency response systems. The Concrn response team works closely with local police, referring cases to them or helping them with crises when relevant and vice versa. Concrn’s long term goal is to implement a new approach to public health – which is addressing the role of mental illness versus defaulting to current approaches of treatment such as jails and prisons. Concrn is the link between behavioral health and criminal justice, using technology and the compassionate response approach to reduce the burden on emergency response and get people in our communities connected to better care. As their work continues to spread across the Bay Area and beyond, outcomes for individuals afflicted with mental health problems will improve, and our cities will stay safer.
To learn more about Concrn or support their work, visit www.concrn.org.