Ask Miriam | Passing a Passed-Out Person Posed a Problem


Dear Miriam,

Over the weekend, I saw a man passed out on someone’s front steps. Or, rather, I don’t know if he was passed out or sleeping or what, and I didn’t know whether to call an organization for homeless people in the city or 911. Using my best judgment, I called the homeless organization, and they told me I should have called 911, adding that I should have investigated whether he was responsive. What’s the best way to handle these unfortunately all-too-frequent encounters?


Sad in the City

Dear City,

Normally, I would have said that you should call a homeless advocacy organization and ask them what to do or, more significantly, tell them that you wanted to report this person in need but that you are not otherwise involved. You did just what I would have advised, and they had a less-than-ideal response, so I see why you may feel stuck and demoralized by the whole situation.

There are so many scenarios that could have led this individual to the circumstances in which you found him. Each of the imaginary possibilities has some social ill behind it, which should be fixed through funding, through advocacy, through social safety nets and even through the kindness and generosity of individuals. But the larger problems and even the particular problems would not have been solved if you’d called 911 first.

The sole responsibility does not fall on you or on any one person to know exactly how to handle someone else’s terrible situation. To your credit as a human, you didn’t just walk past, which I know happens and have seen other people do and have done myself. You made a call and, even if, according to the people you reached, you made the “wrong” choice, there’s no reason that you or I or anyone should be equipped to know just what to do.

There are Narcan trainings available in Philadelphia, and maybe that’s something you’d like to look into. The organization you called, as well as lots of others, can benefit from donations that give them greater resources to be out in the city helping people. There are pamphlets to give to people on the street and lists of best practices about what to do in similar situations and neighborhood support programs.

And, ultimately, there’s you and your best judgment doing what seems doable and right in the moment without compromising your own safety and well-being. You did as much of the “right” thing as was probably possible, and I hope you’ll do your best the next time, too, despite the response you received.

Be well,



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