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Cause for Concrn

A new app is trying to reduce the number of 911 calls made in the Tenderloin. But should crisis management really be handled by ordinary citizens?

Jacob Savage (left), the Pied Piper of the Tenderloin.

 

Jacob Savage can’t meet me in his office, which is temporarily housed in the Indochinese Housing Development Corporation, because the space is being used as a kids' summer camp. Instead, he asks if we can meet nearby at the San Francisco City Impact Thrift Store, a small space in the heart of the Tenderloin. When he shows up, he is carrying a trumpet in one hand. There is also a slide whistle—the kind given out at kid birthday parties—sticking out of his back pocket. “Hey man, I’ve met you before,” one of the store’s employees says to him. “On the street. You were playing that thing,” he says, pointing to the trumpet. 

Savage, 26, is the founder of Concrn, a nonprofit that aims to deploy “compassionate response” to the ongoing social ills plaguing the neighborhood. Much of the group’s work is done through a Tenderloin-specific app, which allows users to report non-emergency crisis situations via their smartphone. Instead of calling the police when someone is yelling belligerently on the sidewalk, for example, users can report the incident on the Concrn app, which then sends trained responders to the scene. Oftentimes the responders will play music to defuse the situation, hence the trumpet.  

But Concrn, at least in the eyes of its founder, is more than just an app. Savage and his team, which includes eight volunteer responders, a dozen lesser-trained volunteers, and a rotating list of instructors experienced in fields like social work and self-defense, spend their days wandering the streets of the Tenderloin and are acutely aware of its happenings, block by block. They know many of the neighborhood’s shopkeepers, service providers, and cops by name, and they try, as best as possible, to build personal relationships with its homeless population. “I hate when people say Concrn is an app,” Savage tells me. “Concrn is a service; we have an app. It’s an alternative to 911.” 

In its nearly two years of existence, Concrn has slowly generated buzz within the nonprofit, governmental, and tech communities. Google has agreed to match the first $10,000 raised in an upcoming crowdfunding campaign; the Department of Public Health’s community liaison, Rann Parker, says she would like to work more closely with the organization in the future. Savage says Concrn receives calls almost every day, and the organization is in frequent communication with city agencies—notably the Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT)—as it carries out its work on the streets. 

But Concrn is also voluntarily taking on a task the SFPD has managed for decades. All the difficulties of crisis management in the Tenderloin—an unpredictable client base, overlapping city bureaucracies, expensive insurance requirements—have already borne down on Jacob Savage. Encouraging people to choose an app over 911 is to renegotiate a response that was drilled into all of us in kindergarten. Concrn also represents something this community has seen before: The insertion of ambitious but inexperienced urbanites who side-step city agencies and attempt to tackle the Tenderloin's deeply entrenched problems with one Grand Plan. There was Greg Gopman, the tech CEO who went from ranting about the homeless online to running a homlessness blog titled "A Better San Francisco." (Gopman ended the project after six months, writing, "I felt we took [the blog] as far as it can go until the city is ready to change.") There's Kevin Adler, the founder of Miracle Messages, which tries to reconnect the homeless with their families by taking videos and posting them on social media. Before Miracle Messages, Adler experimented with giving homeless people GoPros as a way to document life on the streets. Each of these ideas has been strong in its intent but weak in its effectiveness at making life better for those it's meant to serve. In order to be effective in the long run, Savage must not only change the way people think about crisis response, but also gain the trust of both the homeless community and those working to serve it. That’s a lot to ask from a nascent organization with little money, experience, or even its own office.  

To see Concrn in action, I ask Savage to let me tag along for a day as he roams the streets of the Tenderloin. We are walking down Golden Gate Avenue when a woman sitting on the sidewalk asks for help. She says she just got out of the hospital. Savage pulls a granola bar out of his back pocket and gives it to her. “Do you need any water or anything?” he asks. She nods yes. He stoops down and looks her in the eye. “I’m Jacob, by the way. What’s your name?” She says her name is Natalie. Savage gets up, walks into a nearby sandwich shop, and buys a bottle of water. He brings it back to Natalie, who is appreciative, but presses him for money. “I’m from Concrn,” he tells her, “Do you know about my organization?” She says no. “We can’t give money out,” he says, handing her another granola bar. She begins to argue with him, so he says goodbye and heads down the street. “The way this city works, nothing works from the top down,” he sighs. “If you want to get shit done you have to do it from the bottom up.” 


When Savage was
in high school in Palo Alto, he was recruited into a cadet program by the Palo Alto Police Department. From the age of 16 to the time he was 21, he spent many hours riding along in police cars, watching law enforcement in action, and being trained for a future as a police officer. “It was so much fun,” he recalls. “I became this adrenaline junkie. You’re always in pursuit.” But, he admits, “I was young and impressionable.” Things began to change when Savage realized that police response often resulted in arrest, even when the issue involved mental health challenges. “All these emotions started flowing out and I realized I couldn’t become a cop,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a part of that perpetuation of incarceration.” 

After dropping out of a self-designed law enforcement studies program at UC Santa Cruz, Savage decided to focus his attention on music. While attending a festival in Eugene, Oregon, he learned about a local program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), which dispatches a trained crisis worker, along with an EMT, to non-emergency situations. Inspired by seeing an alternative to the career he had dreamed of for so long, Savage told his college friend, a bioengineer named Doug Marks, about it. In 2013 the pair signed up for a Highground Hackers event in San Francisco where participants were tasked with tackling challenges surrounding mental health. The two worked with software developer friends to build an app that would dispatch citizen responders when users filed a report. The idea of Concrn was born, and Savage spent the next year fine-tuning the work of the organization while software developers honed the app (Marks eventually handed all the responsibility over to Savage and is not currently involved with Concrn). “It was always my goal to have [the project] in San Francisco and to be on the street responding, because that’s just how I am,” says Savage. “I’m pretty clear that what we need to do first is to create a really successful pilot project.” 

That project, which involves running a consistently operational dispatch network for two months, is the goal behind an upcoming crowdfunding campaign that Concrn will launch July 25. The campaign is being run on HandUp, a socially conscious donation platform that connected Savage with Google, which in turn agreed to match the first $10,000 raised. Concrn’s total goal is $30,000, to be used toward training costs and operational supplies. Savage, who has been volunteering his efforts for the last two years and only recently moved from friends’ couches into an apartment, will soon get paid $17.50 for every hour he is on the street responding to incidents, as will the rest of his lead responders. “Eventually we want to be able to employ the community of the Tenderloin and run this as a social enterprise,” says Savage. “It’s not going to be sustainable if we can’t pay people to commit to us.” 

Concrn’s lead responders, all of whom are volunteers, receive 100 hours of training in various areas including safety, conscious communication, and “compassion cultivation training.” They may also be deemed pre-qualified thanks to professional experience, in which case they can forgo the 100 hours. Non-lead volunteers, who receive substantially less training, must be paired with a lead teammate in order to respond in crisis situations. But Savage admits that “not all responders have the same training” and that “there is no way to really train someone in a classroom for what we’re doing on the street. They just do it,” he says when I ask how the volunteers gain experience. “They follow a lead responder. It’s a little bit like we’re throwing someone in the fire.” 


There haven’t been
any calls over the dispatch radio, so we walk into Boeddeker Park, a small patch of land that many in this community have tried to save as a safe place, free of used needles and shady drug deals. It’s summer break and dozens of children are out, some of them watched over by camp directors, others seemingly left on their own. Like the Pied Piper reincarnate, Savage breaks out his trumpet and starts playing. A group of boys tossing a football on the grass suddenly stop and look at him. For a moment, there is nothing but the sound of the trumpet as the kids stare at this strange man wearing a bright purple shirt and holding a weird instrument. Then the tallest of the group confidently breaks into a grin and throws Savage the ball. 

“I’ve seen kids this age smoking crack, so we try to build relationships with them,” Savage tells me on our way into the park. Playing football is a far cry from crisis management, but the kids seem to recognize, or least accept, that he’s part of the community. As he runs around on the grass with the kids, two cops stand on the edge of the park, watching over the scene before them. “You should play with us sometime,” Savage tells them on the way out. One responds, “There’s no need for me to be there if you’re there.” 

The day drags on without any calls, so Savage decides to check in on a homeless man he’s gotten to know in the neighborhood. Hugh Herns is 57 and has been living on the street ever since getting out of prison a few years ago. He says he used to sleep in shelters but that he contracted tuberculosis from one and ended up hospitalized for several months. “A place is the main thing I need,” he says. “There’s only so much a man can take.” He first met Savage on the street about nine months ago and says that Concrn has been trying to help get him housed. As we stand there, a homeless woman approaches Savage and asks what Concrn is all about. “We try to get people housing,” he responds. “But there is no housing so we never promise anything.” Later, after he’s played the trumpet for his small street audience and we’re walking away, I ask Savage why his response to the woman was so different than what Concrn promotes on its website. “We have a different answer for everyone,” he admits. “We don’t need to be case managers.” 

Indeed, most of Concrn’s day-to-day work involves solving the immediate needs of the people it meets: giving someone a granola bar and water, or handing out free jackets when it’s cold. Savage carries Narcan, the heroin overdose reversal drug, and says they often provide “wellness checks” when they see someone lying on the street. But through the app, Concrn’s volunteer workers are also responding to incident reports that would normally be handled by the police: fights between people on the street, tensions between warring drug dealers, mentally ill people yelling at passing cars (“that’s our bread and butter” says Savage). He admits they almost never call the police for help, but says they do frequently get backup from SFHOT and EMS-6, the city response team that dispatches SFHOT members with first responders when the call warrants it. 

When asked whether or not all of this is a good idea, Tenderloin Station Captain Teresa Ewins says she knew of Concrn’s work with the homeless population but had no idea they were encouraging people to report crises to them directly. “If they’re convincing people to do that, that’s not really the responsible thing to do,” Ewins stresses. “I don’t think it’s good for the community to not call the police during crisis situations. That creates a huge safety issue.” 

Others in the Tenderloin say that’s exactly the point—they have no interest in involving the cops in what should be a community issue. Lillie Troy co-owns Smash Gallery on Golden Gate Avenue and met Savage a couple months ago. “They would probably be my first resort if I couldn’t get through to someone or needed to get in the doorway or something,” she says of Concrn. “It’s a level of backup that doesn’t put you at odds with everybody else around.” David Fenton, Troy’s fellow co-owner, is slightly more dubious. “It seems as if their intent is wonderful, like they want to offer something great to the community. But I haven’t seem them in action, I’ve only heard them talking about what they do.” 

As the day draws to a close without any crises being reported, Savage heads back towards his makeshift office. Suddenly, he notices a voicemail has just been left on his phone. It’s from the Department of Public Health’s Mobile Crisis Team, which has received a report of someone on the sidewalk in the Marina yelling and hitting himself. Savage calls back and talks to an MCT employee, who tells him they are unavailable to respond and asks if he could help. “This is out of our regular jurisdiction, but I’m going to jump in my car and drive over there,” he tells the caller. We hop in his Bernie Sanders–stickered car and head north, and Savage calls SFPD commander Ann Mannix to tell her what’s going on. She urges him to call 911, but he politely declines and they wrap up the call. He tells me that he “skipped the chain of command” by calling the commander instead of the neighborhood police captain. 

“Isn’t that kind of renegade?” I ask him. 

He barely hesitates. “This whole thing is.” 

 

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