Seeing a homeless person can be a common occurrence when walking down a city street, but knowing the best way to help someone isn’t always easy.
Many passersby concerned about someone might dial 911, but a new app is offering an alternative.
Concrn allows users to report a homeless person who needs assistance. In these cases, a trained community member will respond, instead of the police.
The creators of Concrn hope the app will provide a community-based crisis response network that will be more effective and beneficial to a homeless person.
“When police respond to community needs related to mental health, substance use, or people experiencing homelessness, it can result in further escalation, violence, or incarceration. Sometimes those interactions are fatal,” the Concrn team told Healthline in a statement. “When you have members of a community responding to their own crises using de-escalation skills and supporting the person into available services, you're really taking more of a transformative approach.”
The Concrn app currently services the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, an area with a high rate of homelessness without adequate shelters or care services.
Responders are members of the community from a variety of backgrounds who are trained in crisis de-escalation, first aid, conflict resolution, and the navigation of social services.
Reaction to the app
Dr. Margot Kushel is a professor of medicine at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, and a core faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, Center for Vulnerable Populations.
Her view of the Concrn app is mixed.
“I am glad to see that people are responding to the enormous crisis of homelessness and want to do something about the suffering that they see, that is a good thing. [But] I have some skepticism about how effective this app could be,” she told Healthline.
“There is no doubt that the enormity of the homelessness crisis is making it difficult for the professional organizations to respond, but I hope that efforts like this coordinate with existing efforts of trained professionals,” Kushel added. “If they do work closely with the existing service providers and come up with a system in which less severe problems are sent to trained volunteers in a way that would allow the trained professional mental health providers to respond to those with the highest level of need, that could be helpful.”
Homelessness and mental health
In the United States, 1 in 5 homeless people live in California. The state accounted for nearly half (44 percent) of all unsheltered people in the United States in 2016.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 97,660 people were homeless in California, and 66 percent of them were without shelter.
According to the American Psychological Association, the rate of mental illness among those who are homeless in the United States is twice that of the general population. In January 2016, 1 in 5 people who were homeless had a serious mental illness.
“Homelessness is devastating to mental health. While people note the high prevalence of mental health problems among people who experience homelessness, they sometimes fail to recognize that the relationship is bidirectional. People with mental health problems are at higher risk of homelessness, but homelessness worsens mental health,” Kushel said.
App could be educational
Dr. Victor Carrion, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said the Concrn app could play an important role in educating the community on how best to assist those who need help.
“Our communities need to be educated on mental health and how to recognize individuals who need support in achieving it,” he told Healthline. “Learning how to recognize distress is an important step, as in some cases individuals may feel their privacy invaded if someone calls just because they saw someone who may have a mental illness, but this individual may not necessarily be in distress or willing to receive help.”
Carrion said a person may be in need of assistance if they show signs that suggest they are in danger of hurting themselves or others, and when they seem to be having trouble caring for themselves or are in need of basic necessities.
The challenge for the general public, said Kushel, is trying to determine whether a homeless person is in significant danger.
“I am not sure that the general public is able to assess quickly whether there is a need for an immediate response,” she said. “If there isn’t an imminent risk, it’s always better to call for a mental health crisis responder.”
Kushel argues although trained community members could be an excellent resource to assist mental health professionals, a homeless person in the midst of a mental health crisis would benefit from the experience of a professional.
“I would want someone who was having a crisis to be assessed by a trained professional who had much more training first, and then triaged appropriately,” she said.
The creators of the Concrn app are already receiving a high number of reports.
“We definitely receive more reports than we’re able to respond to, but hope that changes in the future as more people become involved,” company officials said.
Going forward the creators of the app hope to explore ways their cloud-based dispatch technology will improve coordination with other service providers who respond to crises.
Kushel said that although there is much to be done to address mental illness in the homeless population, you don’t need to be a first responder or a trained mental health professional to make a difference in the life of a homeless person.
“I hear frequently from people who are experiencing homelessness that one of the worst parts of what is a terrible experience is the enormous stigma they feel — that people who are not homeless walk by them and try to ignore them, or worse. I would hope that people realize that one doesn’t need training to be compassionate and treat others as you would want to be treated,” she said.