Stranger in Dire Straits
April 20, 2009 8:47 PM   Subscribe

I just passed a young woman walking slowly down the street, barefoot, crying, with two black eyes.

About five minutes ago I was walking home from work and came up on a young woman in sweatpants and a baggy shirt, barefoot, with terribly tangled hair. She was walking so slowly and aimlessly that I first thought she was on drugs, and maybe she was, but as I passed her I saw that she had two black eyes and was crying. It looked like she'd just run away from somewhere. I stopped and asked if she was okay. She said, "yeah." I asked if she needed help or anything, and she said quietly, "Oh, no, I'll be fine..."

I went on home, feeling baffled about what to do, and called my girlfriend who also had no idea what to do. I don't think it's too late to call the police, but I also want to respect her wish to be left alone. I'm totally perplexed. What should I do?
posted by granted to Human Relations (44 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Since the particular question might soon be obsolete, any advice on how to handle similar situations in the future?
posted by granted at 8:51 PM on April 20, 2009

Call the cops, tell them that you suspect abuse - either child or spousal, depending on what you mean by "young" - give them the best description of the woman you saw that you can and where you saw here. Cops and courts are fairly good about this sort of thing, all things considered, and can certainly get further than trying to reason with her. And, while I don't mean to diminish her own agency, people that are abused rarely realize where their own best chance at happiness or even survival lie. Let her exercise that agency when she's not being used as a punching bag.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:51 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would call the police and express your concern. I understand your wanting to respect the woman's wishes to be left as is, but the police are in a better position to assess the situation (they may even be familiar with her already) and are likely better equipped to determine if she is in fact okay. It can be really hard for people to admit they need help, particularly in abusive situations.
posted by December at 8:53 PM on April 20, 2009

Thirding the recommendation to call the police. That is part of their job. Inspector.Gadget is right that an abused person is an unreliable judge of whether or not they need help.
posted by apricot at 8:55 PM on April 20, 2009

Thirding call the police to report it. It's not even an unusual kind of call, and they have the tools and experience to know whether this a situation that needs to be acted upon.
posted by Miko at 8:55 PM on April 20, 2009

police. absolutely.
posted by jcworth at 8:59 PM on April 20, 2009

Ambulance. They'll get the police involved if they deem it necessary, likely at the hospital. Two black eyes = probably enough head trauma to make an ER visit wise.

Less confrontational for an ambulance to roll up, and she'll be more likely to cooperate and get whatever help she needs.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:06 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Um, don't call the police or an ambulance unless you actually know how to direct them to where this person is. If I understand your post correctly, you have no idea who this person is or where she lives: she was just a random stranger whom you passed on a city street, correct? I see from your profile that you live in SF. It's a big city. If you want to get involved, you have to go back on the street and find the person, and then call the authorities. For all you know, she could by now be nowhere near where you first saw her.
posted by ornate insect at 9:15 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I were in that situation, I'd probably say I was fine, too.
Not because I was, but because I don't know what you'd be prepared to do, and I'd be embarassed to be seen like that.
If you and your girlfriend felt like driving back there and looking, and offering specifics -- "please let me drive you somewhere," "please let me call someone for you" -- it might help.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:20 PM on April 20, 2009

Unless you're willing to either follow her or physically restrain her, I'm not sure what the police or ambulance are supposed to do about something like this. "I saw a woman walking along the street, she looked in bad shape." "Okay sir, could you give us her address?" "Uhh no, she was just walking along Smith Street, towards the corner." "Well, thanks for that."
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:23 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

You did all you could --- You inquired about her health and asked if you could help. She said, "No". I would feel like you, that I wish I could do more, but she said she was ok and did not want help. Respect her wishes.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:24 PM on April 20, 2009

California Domestic Violence Hotlines [.pdf]. If you do manage to re-locate this person (and it's pointless to call anyone until you do), I would recommend using your cell phone to call a number from the link. The police and emergency rooms are not going to be interested, unless she needs stitches or wants to press charges. If she's homeless or a prostitute, obviously her problems are magnified considerably, and you might just give her some money, cup of coffee and a phone number to call (from the list). Good luck.
posted by ornate insect at 9:28 PM on April 20, 2009

The police are very used to doing drivebys and alerting the officers on duty in that area/district of what to look for, especially if you can give a clear physical description including clothing. There's no reason not to call. She may be wandering the streets or sitting down, and it's not like the police are going to yell at you for trying. I mean, the TL may get less of a response than St Francis Wood, but you never know.
posted by kcm at 9:33 PM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I feel that you have already lost the chance to help her.
Often you have to go with your gut on the fly and have faith that it is right.
How can you even find her now?
posted by will wait 4 tanjents at 9:33 PM on April 20, 2009

Sometimes people don't 'want' help.

I had someone similar come up to me, but asking for $10 so she could afford a hostel bed. I asked her what was going rough, got stuttering, gave her $20, kept walking, and she started crying.

At least the one you ran unto wasn't trying to hustle.
posted by porpoise at 9:35 PM on April 20, 2009

To those suggesting that you only call the police if you can physically track the person down and/or detain them: what would you suggest doing if the OP had just seen somebody commit a crime? "Oh, you know, don't call the cops unless you've already done their job. It's not like they can cruise around the area and look for the person you've described or anything." Come on, people.

Call the police and tell them. They'll make the decision as to whether or not this is worth pursuing and if they can do anything about it. It's not your place to make that decision for them.
posted by sinfony at 9:51 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

turgid dahlia: "Unless you're willing to either follow her or physically restrain her, I'm not sure what the police or ambulance are supposed to do about something like this. "I saw a woman walking along the street, she looked in bad shape." "Okay sir, could you give us her address?" "Uhh no, she was just walking along Smith Street, towards the corner." "Well, thanks for that.""

That's what will happen, and who knows how far this woman was going to walk or how many laps around a block she was going to do. This is going to be a low priority for almost any police force, but there's a decent chance that she might be circling her home waiting for the assaulter to cool off, and in that time a cruiser might become available to patrol the area for a bit, during which the officers could speak with her.

But holy cow, unless you want to open yourself up to an enormous set of problems don't follow (at least not blatantly) or restrain people, even when clearly desperate for care. Maybe there are a few instances where it's justifiable, but even then you're likely to bring a lot of problems on yourself.
posted by Science! at 9:58 PM on April 20, 2009

sinfony--It can't hurt to call the cops, that's true. It can't hurt, but that was not my point: my point was it's better in this particular situation to re-locate the person if possible.

I'm not sure where you live, or where in SF the poster lives, but I think it really depends on the city, the size of the city, and the neighborhood: a small town is different than a big city, etc.

In the case the poster describes, and about which we have only a few sketchy details, it might make more sense to actually track the person down first to see if she's still on the streets and then call the cops. However, if (and this is a big if, we have no way of knowing) she happens to be homeless, drug addicted, or a prostitute, calling the cops might make less sense than calling a domestic violence hotline--but again only after the person has been re-located.

If the poster has a cell phone, but did not call the cops when she first asked after the woman it was b/c unlike actually witnessing the crime that led to the beating, or witnessing a person ask you to call the cops, this situation was different. It's possible if the poster had volunteered to call the cops right away the person would have strongly objected for other reasons. Then what should one do?

posted by ornate insect at 10:05 PM on April 20, 2009

In San Francisco, you can call the Mobile Assistance Patrol in such situations as well.
posted by zachlipton at 10:15 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was walking home from a lazy brunch about six months ago when I saw a woman lying in the street, sick. She was a disaster, could not walk. I kneeled down and asked her if she wanted help. She said no, she was fine. I started to walk on, feeling weird about it, and I called 3-1-1. In California, 311 is basically 911 for not super on-fire emergencies. I told them what I saw, and kept walking. By the time I got to the block where I could turn, I saw ambulances appear. I felt a little weird, hoping I didn't cause that woman even more trouble, but I believe I did the right thing. She was really a mess.

It is probably too late for you to do anything for this woman, and you should not beat yourself up about it, but in the future, 311 is my answer for stuff like this.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:17 PM on April 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Look, everybody's correct that you did what you could. Also, given the range of possibilities, while it's very likely that the police will be proper at some point, it's going to be difficult to bring them in meaningfully in that situation.

That said, this would be my own way to deal with this, granted that who knows what might happen or what led her to this point:

If I'd asked her if she was okay, and she'd responded with a noncommittal and distant 'yeah,' I would've done just what you did: inquired further whether she needed help. She's almost certainly a trauma victim, right? My experience is that there are two different possible reactions almost all recent trauma victims have to strangers (well, me) if asked how they are: either they (a) react with anger, fear, exasperation, or anxiety, or they (b) react distantly and indifferently. In the first case, for example, you'd get a cold look: 'of course I'm fine. Mind your own business! Hmph.' The person you encountered was the second type. In neither situation does the person ask for any kind of help - it seems like people who have had sudden and intense pain feel guilty about asking for someone to help them, and can't really process even deciding whether they need help, much less how to ask for it.

Again, I think you did the most you probably could in that situation; I'm only describing what I would do. But I would have stepped in front of the woman, touched her on the shoulder, and said: 'Hey; come with me. Let's get some coffee or tea. Okay?' That's forceful, and it's direct, and it gives a strong, positive, easy choice; but at the same time, it allows them an out ('Okay?') just in case they're really not comfortable going with you or in case they're likely to go the other way ('No! Get away from me!'). If she's not going to go down that road, she'd probably continue the distant look and speech, maybe not even saying 'yes,' but that doesn't stop a person from putting an arm around her and leading her to a safe place like a coffee shop. If I saw a cop, I'd enlist their help - it would be nice - but often someone who's in that place just really needs to sit in a soft chair and drink water and hold a hand for a little while, not answer a bunch of questions or talk it all out immediately.

I guess this has certain dangers, and I feel like I'd want to make sure we weren't near the source of the danger she's trying to get away from, although I guess it's not easy to know what that source is. But it seems as though, if she's going to wander like that until someone takes her by the hand and sits her down and cools her off, it may as well start right away.
posted by koeselitz at 11:22 PM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I once found a crying middle-aged, middle-class woman holding her shoes and padding barefoot down a cold deserted downtown street late at night. I gently prodded* until she started talking to me (it didn't take much, I could see she really didn't want to be alone). I bought her a cup of tea, let her vent about her dickish abusive husband who'd taken her purse and abandoned her in the high heels she couldn't walk in, in an unfamiliar part of a town she'd never been to before, after they'd argued during their anniversary dinner. I told her it sounded like she should leave him, then helped her find her hotel again and offered to wait in the hall outside for 15 mins or so, to make sure she didn't get beaten up upon re-entry. She gave me a big hug before going back in. I heard them argue, but no hitting ensued, so I asked the clerks to look out for her, and left.

*Disclaimers: I'm a friendly-looking woman, and I was a lot younger than her, so she wasn't afraid of me. I don't think this would work the same way for a man, especially a large or non-smiley man, as I can imagine it would be scary and awful to be questioned by a strange man when I was already edgy. So menfolks, maybe this advice is not for you. But in some situations, human contact is really what the person needs, and only a human can give that.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:31 AM on April 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

You did what you could do - and all that would be reasonable for you to do. There are a million people like that woman, and all you can do is offer. You asked, and she said she was fine. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn't, but until she's lying in the street senseless, she gets to call the shots. I have no doubt that you can respect her space without judging.

Just another reason for you to feel grateful tomorrow morning.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:02 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

The thing is, none of us really have the answer for you on this one. You could've given her $5 for a beer or a phone card or some advil, or $12 for a good meal, or $120 for a hotel room. You could've maybe gotten her to talk, or maybe not. And what would it take away from your life to spend that time listening, or to give that much money? And what would it have done for her? There's a practical side to this, but this is also like asking "what do I do about the existence of suffering in the world?"
posted by salvia at 1:37 AM on April 21, 2009

If I had it, I'd give her a hundred bucks and my phone number, or maybe email address.

If she said she wanted to be left alone, I'd leave her alone. I'd ask her if there was any place she wanted to go, and try to help her get there.

I would not call the police, unless she was a kid.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:06 AM on April 21, 2009

. You asked, and she said she was fine. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn't, but until she's lying in the street senseless, she gets to call the shots.

Well, sure, but you can call some shots of your own that she can't do anything about it, either.

I had a half-naked girl walk quite literally through my door two winters ago. She was out of her head, and the few clothes she did have on were soaking wet because of the snow on the ground outside that she had been repeatedly slipping & falling into. When her eyes opened enough to recognize it wasn't her house, and her ears recognized the sound of some strange dude (me) asking her questions, she decided to leave. I had called the cops already, but they didn't get there before she walked out the door. I couldn't restrain the girl. I couldn't stop her from her suicidally stupid plan.

Before the cops arrived I decided to head outside and look for her. I figured she wouldn't get far in the cold and would attract enough attention to herself that I could find her again. I kept worrying that she would fall into a snow bank, only next time wouldn't have enough strength to get up, and would maybe just take a little nap instead…

I found her a couple of blocks away, still stumbling, still falling. I asked her again if she needed any help. She said no, and asked me to leave her alone. So I called the cops on my cell and followed her. I told her that it was fine that she didn't want any help, but I was going to keep following her, anyway. Because I had every right to be walking down the road talking to the police on my cell phone. She didn't like it? Too bad.

Sometimes, I think people should suffer the consequences of their bad choices, or I don't feel like getting involved, or I question if my feelings of altruism aren't simply manifestations of my own stubbornness. Nobody said being ethical was easy.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:13 AM on April 21, 2009

No, do not call the police. Recognize that she might be involved in activities for which a police presence would be an intrusion. Such as drugs or prostitution--crimes, but for her, a means to get by in a tough city and tough economy. If you'd like to offer aid, do it directly, but only involve the authorities if she voluntarily asks you to.

For those who insist that the OP should have contacted the police immediately--"on the next block"--keep in mind that this unsolicited move could have resulted in hardship for the victim. The OP mulled over the situation and sent in a question to AskMe. He did the right thing.
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:49 AM on April 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

What are you comfortable doing?

Do you have the time and/or mental reserves to sit and talk with her? Buy her a cup of coffee? Lunch? Drive her somewhere? Give her money?

Think about these questions and the suggestions above and figure out your level of comfort in these situations because you'll probably come across one again.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:30 AM on April 21, 2009

Call the police.

My roommate and I tried to "rescue" someone, once. She was being kicked and hit by her pro-wrestler sized boyfriend, in broad daylight, on a very busy road, with no one else intervening. We wound up picking her up, feeding her, listening to her for a while, getting numbers for her for shelters and other options - just trying to help however we could without telling her what to do. Turned out she was a runaway who had been camping rough with Mr. Abusive since she was 14, and was pregnant. We went with her to the really crappy doss house kind of apartment, to help her pick up her things. There were maybe 10 people living there, sleeping on the floor - most of them looked really young. Not much of a surprise, I guess, that she refused to go once she was there. Not only that, but she gave our number and address to Mr Abusive, who showed up one day and physically threatened my roommate, called us to rant at odd hours, and genuinely scared the shit out of both of us.

It sounds impersonal, and might shrink the story, but if we'd called the cops and stuck around until they came, it would have been a better outcome for everyone involved. Runaway girl and her baby have a fighting chance at something beyond their life with Mr Abusive, Mr Abusive himself would have been sorted out, the other runaways living with them might have been picked up and sorted out as well, and my roommate and I wouldn't have been threatened and harassed.

Assault and battery is a crime, and it's best left with the cops. If the girl is on the street, crying and afraid, there's probably more to her story than you can cope with. Stay with her, if you want. But leave this one to the pros.
posted by Grrlscout at 3:46 AM on April 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Also, if wish to get involved in some way, start by offering her a cigarette. They're the international icebreaker for shooting the breeze. Don't smoke? Offer to go to the local store to get a pack.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:47 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

just chiming in to say brandon blatcher is right on.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:32 AM on April 21, 2009

Another vote for Don't call the cops. There are just too many scenarios that begin with you calling the police, and end with this poor woman in jail.

She could be involved in illegal activity, such as drug use or prostitution, and end up telling the cops something about that that gets her arrested. She could also just be in a bad state of mind, and freak out when the police show up. It's incredibly easy to be a law abiding citizen, get upset when the police show up, and end up in jail for assault on a police officer because you swung your leg in the wrong direction.

Even assuming she's the victim of domestic violence(which is not a bad bet) the police might investigate and talk to the other party, and wind up arresting both parties because of something the other person tells them.

Cops don't exist to solve problems, they exist to arrest people. If you call the police you are asking them to arrest someone. You are also abdicating any control over who gets arrested.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:19 AM on April 21, 2009

I feel that there is no way to help her now. She is now lost. Intuition is emotional. The heart cannot stand in the path. Please do not miss the chance to help this poor girl again.
posted by luckypozzo at 6:20 AM on April 21, 2009

Sometimes it's comforting to assume she was the victim of spousal abuse rather than, for example, a criminal who was caught trying to rob someone. Sure, you should call the police but don't give them false information about her based on what you assume. All you need to tell them is that there is a woman who has been assaulted on "Somewhere Road". You can't "suspect spousal abuse" unless you know something specific. I think it is wrong to give that type of information to the police which may impede an investigation.
posted by JJ86 at 6:33 AM on April 21, 2009

I would think twice before involving the police. You stopped long enough to ask her if she was alright. She told you that she was and declined your offer of help. I would let it go at that. Sending armed gunmen into a situation you know nothing about could end up getting someone killed, or at least put them into a far worse situation than they may have already had to deal with.
posted by metagnathous at 7:03 AM on April 21, 2009

You did your best to be kind, and it may have helped in some small way.
posted by theora55 at 7:11 AM on April 21, 2009

If you don't want to involve the police, you can call your town's EMS (911) dispatch...even if it's a more of a behavioral emergency than a physical health one.
posted by availablelight at 7:14 AM on April 21, 2009

I witnessed a similar situation where I saw a man punch a woman in the face on a public street right in front of a crowd. The guy was too big for me to do anything, but I immediately called 911 -- which had a busy signal. By the time I got through (actually, the dispatcher called me back, I think), they were long gone. I was somewhat bothered by it for a good deal of time -- I mean, I certainly could've tried to do something or have said something*, but considering the already apathetic state of the crowd it was probably sure to have ended very badly. At one point, I had a friend suggest that the best way to make a difference in these sorts of situations was to volunteer at a domestic violence hotline. There's probably nothing you can do about this particular event, but if it bothered you enough, you might consider donating money or more importantly, your time, to an organization that advocates for battered women.

* for what it's worth, there was another time where I *did* say something, and I earned a chipped tooth and a injured shoulder for my troubles and made the situation worse -- so sadly, sometimes getting directly or physically involved is not always your smartest or even the most effective choice
posted by ragaskar at 7:57 AM on April 21, 2009

It is really a shame that the police have become so useless at solving problems in so many areas. If you are in an area with a good police force, if there are any, calling the police isn't that bad an idea, they will get to the bottom of it. For many places in the USA and the world, you are just bringing armed thugs into the situation. Sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn't. So, know if your local police are pretty helpful, or pretty useless and go from there.
posted by jester69 at 8:11 AM on April 21, 2009

I'm not understanding the emphatic "don't call the cops" answers here, which argue that she could end up arrested for prostitution or something. Unless she solicits them, that's not what they're going to do; they're going to deal with her problem. Contrary to the opinion of Bulgaroktonos, cops do solve problems, every day.
posted by beagle at 8:36 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like beagle, I want to stick up for the police, too. Though there are some bad ones and some inherent problems with the law enforcement system we have, let's not assume they're "armed thugs" who are going to immediately treat this woman as a criminal. Even if they do peel back the layers and this incident were connected to criminal activity, the woman might receive access to support and avenues for assistance that she wouldn't have if there weren't a touchpoint for getting her involved with people whose job is, ultimately, to help. Cops do a lot of things - yes, they arrest, but they also investigate, protect, give referrals to clinics and shelters and programs, get to know people, build relationships, render first aid, and help.

I'm all for changing our laws around drugs and for smarter policing. But solving those issues is totally different from seeing someone on the street who needs help and sending a public servant in whose job it is to help. Don't undersell the police. Many of them are great at this sort of thing, and as I said above, they do it every. single. day. And sometimes they change lives for the better. Sometimes they actually save them.
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on April 21, 2009

For what it's worth, if the woman was actually involved in something illegal like prostitution or drugs, in San Francisco, the police wouldn't do much about it. There's pretty much a hands-off approach to those sorts of crime here, unless it's extreme, blatant, and people are complaining about it often.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:26 AM on April 21, 2009

After I received the first few answers, I tried calling 911, but I live in a vortex and my call was dropped before I could give the dispatcher my location. Then I actually tried skyping the non-emergency line, but they had me on hold long enough that I got impatient, grabbed my phone, and ran outside to look for a signal. I ended up walking back to the intersection where I'd seen her. It had been about half an hour at this point, so of course she was gone.

I called 911 again and explained what happened to the dispatcher, who had me describe the girl in detail and said she'd send out a car to search the area. The dispatcher was really nice and didn't give me any "um, well it's a little late now" attitude like I half-expected her to.

It probably was too late, but I have a sliver of hope that somehow she found some help. This happened on Church St. in Noe Valley, active but not very busy, and where a barefoot, raggedy girl definitely stands out more than on, say, Haight & Stanyan. Maybe someone else intercepted her or called for assistance while she was still in sight.

My hesitation stemmed mostly from the scenario Gordion Knott described - that of the police possibly making the situation worse for her. In retrospect, though, it seems clear that authorities needed to be involved somehow. The non-police numbers others mentioned above are really helpful - I'll keep them in my phone.

Thanks to everyone who responded!!
posted by granted at 11:12 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had basically the same thing happen that ragaskar did, except I was driving by and the guy and the girl were standing on the sidewalk, with the guy obviously berating the girl. Then he just up and punched her in the face. I was sorely, sorely tempted to jump out of my truck and get sideways on him, but I've watched enough episodes of C.O.P.S. to have been concerned that she might jump on my back or something. Imagine my joy when immediately after I pulled over a cop slowly drove by me. I jumped out, hailed him down, and pointed out the offender. He went straight over and (presumably) settled the guy's hash.

In agreement with some other folks here, I'll say there's no way to tell if the cop ran them both in, or if she didn't want to press charges, or whatever. However, I figure about any situation is somewhat better than her getting punched in the head again right away. I would agree that it's harder to figure out what to do if you don't see the genesis of the situation, though.

Also, sorry I'm late.
posted by Nabubrush at 4:45 PM on April 21, 2009

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