Sep 6, 2023 - News

San Francisco urges 911 and 311 calls for people in crisis

Photo: Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As San Francisco is on track to record the most overdose deaths since 2020, officials are urging residents to call for help when someone is in crisis on the streets, whether it's related to drug overdoses, mental health or homelessness.

Driving the news: The mayor's office on Tuesday announced an advertising campaign called "Okay to Call," which aims to inform people about when to call 911 (for emergencies) and 311 (for non-emergencies).

Why it matters: Through July, San Francisco had recorded 473 accidental overdose deaths so far this year, according to the city's medical examiner's office, outpacing the same timeframe in 2020, when the city recorded 400 accidental overdose deaths.

  • San Francisco recorded a total of 725 overdoses in 2020.

Details: The city plans to place ads inside and outside of Muni buses as well as throughout business corridors and on social media.

  • For emergencies like overdoses, crimes or mental health episodes, 911 should be called; a call to 311 gets support for unhoused people or provides information and resources about encampments.
  • Depending on the crisis, San Francisco's Coordinated Street Response Program team, led by the city's Department of Emergency Management (DEM), may deploy teams specialized in trauma-informed care, deescalation or other non-police alternatives.

What they're saying: "Treatment works and it is available for people experiencing mental health and substance use challenges," Grant Colfax, the city's director of health, said in a press release. "We want the public to know a simple call just might get someone on the road [to] recovery."

The League of Women Voters of San Francisco, however, believes the flyer (seen in a San Francisco Chronicle story) does not make it clear that people have two choices, the organization said in a statement to Axios via email.

  • Instead, the flyer "tells people to call 911 instead of educating them about the nonemergency 311 number available to us."

Flashback: In May, the Coalition on Homelessness, alongside other community groups, rallied at City Hall to urge the city to implement a Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) program, a police-free response system to homelessness.

  • Later that month, the mayor's office announced the Homeless Engagement Assistance Response Team (HEART), a pilot program overseen by the emergency management department designed to serve as a police-free response to homelessness.
  • Yes, but: Advocates for CART expressed concerns over DEM running the program, given the department's involvement in homeless sweeps.

Between the lines: The city is in an ongoing legal battle around homeless encampment sweeps.

  • A temporary injunction legally bars San Francisco from clearing most homeless encampments, but the city has asked the court to lift the order.
  • The next hearing on the matter isn't expected until after Sept. 22, when new written arguments are due, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

What's next: You can get more information regarding the campaign and the city's services here.


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