The grey fringes of social responsibility

November 5, 2017 - 4.36 PM / Blog

Today, on my brisk lunch-time walk, I came across a person sleeping on the sidewalk. I was on my way to a store to look at wallpaper and paint for a bathroom reno, and had to walk past this person to get there.
A number of thoughts went through my head as I walked past. Are they breathing? Are they OK? Are they drunk or drugged or both? What would someone have to go through to get to the point where sleeping on a sidewalk seemed to be a good option? And then, what do I do? Do I approach them to check on their condition? What if they are ill? What if they are violent? Do I call the police or an ambulance? Do I walk on and leave them alone?

I noticed no-one else was looking at them, choosing either not to see, or not to stop. I walked by and into the wallpaper store. And then, out of the fray of lunch time life on the street, called the police non-emergency line. While on hold, I was able to ask about the wall treatments we were looking for. Then I went back outside and confirmed that the person still seemed conscious. They pulled their thin hoody in closer around their face and head and neck, and curled in tighter to try to keep warm. Bony, white ankles stuck out from the bottom of their jeans and into ratty shoes a size or two too big.

I gave the police service the details they asked for. Location? (Check.) Was the person conscious? (Yes.) Male or female? (Hard to tell.) Ethnicity? (Uncertain, except for the white ankles.) Any visible weapons? (No.) A smell of alcohol? (I hadn’t gotten close enough to know.) Any imminent threat to myself or others? (No.) Colour of the hoody? (Grey.) My name and phone number, repeated to ensure they got it down accurately. A polite thank you for calling and confirmation about whether or not I wanted a follow up phone call. (No.) A unit would be dispatched.

And then as I continued about my day, I considered:  Did I do enough? What kept me from getting too close? Fear? If so, of what? Or, perhaps, did I do too much? What if they just wanted to be left alone? Would it have made a difference if I had done things differently – approached them, asked them if they were ok or if they needed assistance? If so, what difference? To them? To me? Why hadn’t anyone else noticed or stopped or cared? 

I wasn’t sure there was one right answer. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing. I don’t know what may have happened after my phone call. I wonder where they are now: what sidewalk they may be lying on, what state they may be in. All I know, is that I saw them. And that I paused. I am glad I made the call. I am glad I recognized the fact that they, too, matter. I am glad that I did not choose silence, inaction, or the failure to notice at all. What would you do?

Contributed by Christine Jensen

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