It could have been the beginning of a crime movie: a man lies dying on the sidewalk of a dark alley, crying for help as residents of nearby houses and apartments ignore the pleas for hours. But there is no screen that roles credits in this tale, no actor playing the part of the dying man.
The man who was lying on the sidewalk for hours before anyone called police was Richard Sprague, a 47-year-old from San Francisco. And the dark alleyway was a street in the Mission district lined with residential units. His first pleas for help were heard about 2:30 a.m., yet tragically when the first 911 call was placed it was about five hours later, too late for emergency personnel to attempt to save him.
The personal loss for everyone who knew Sprague is immense. For the rest of us in San Francisco, the tragedy must raise the question of how we have become numb to what is happening in our very own communities.
Neighbors who talked with The San Francisco Examiner expressed regret that they had not picked up the phone to call 911 when they heard the pleas for help outside their windows. Sadly, this is a community that has become accustomed to strange happenings. Neighbors said the constant traffic of druggies and drunks on the block has made seeing people passed out on the sidewalks so commonplace that they no longer bother to call the police.
The fact that our social safety net has eroded to the point that inebriated and drug-addicted people on our sidewalks is a common sight in San Francisco also should raise concerns. In a city that prides itself for being liberal and progressive, the residents have come to accept that sidewalks in the middle of the night are acceptable places for addiction-riddled people to lay their heads. This should raise alarms on several levels.
There could be the argument that this tragedy unfolded because of the bystander effect — the psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to help someone in distress if they know there is a large number of people around, believing someone has already come to the person’s aid. Some facts, such as neighbors telling The S.F. Examiner that they thought the man had received aid since they heard voices outside before his cries stopped, could point to that, but the larger point is still that an entire community has become numb to helping those in need.
The horrific death in the Mission district should not be seen as a reason to crack down on homeless. Nor should it be a reason to or have police sweep through and arrest people who may be under the influence — crimes that need to be dealt with for their own reasons. The tragedy should, though, be a starting point for everyone, as residents, to band together, take pride in their neighborhoods and build strong communities that care and help everyone in need.