Jim Withers

Picture of Giraffe Jim Withers

You may pass them on the streets, if you live in a city: the homeless, the poor, the people who, for whatever reason, stand or sit on corners begging for food or money. You may give them a dollar or two, but much more often people pass them by, wishing they could do something to help them. 

In Pittsburgh, Dr. Jim Withers does do something to help them; he does a lot to help them.

He began in 1992. He was a successful internist and teaching physician at Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital, but he saw a need beyond the corridors of the hospital that maybe he could meet, out on the streets. At first he dressed as a homeless person and began to tend to people, down alleyways, beneath bridges, on curbs and river banks, who needed medical care.

Soon, other volunteers joined him, and within a year Withers had acquired a $50,000 startup grant from the Sisters of Mercy and formalized the effort into Operation Safety Net, a nonprofit that sends out small teams of doctors, nurses and other medical experts each night to provide basic medical diagnostics and supplies, plus food and clothing to Pittsburgh\'s homeless. What Operation Safety Net does, quite simply, is make house calls--on people who don’t have houses.

They bring medicine, sandwiches, bottled water, and sleeping bags to the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, and the cold. They make diagnoses. When possible, they provide treatment. Lately they\'ve also been getting people into permanent housing; Withers estimates that they\'ve moved about a quarter of Pittsburgh\'s homeless men, women, and children into apartments and homes over the last five years. Perhaps most importantly, they meet the homeless on their own terms. They give them something that is frequently in short supply: dignity. Withers says his philosophy is, \"I\'ll honor who you are and come to you.\"

This has not been an easy venture. In the beginning, the people on the streets didn\'t trust Withers, and some even threatened him with weapons. On the other side of the divide, his former colleagues began to doubt his sanity when he shucked his regular attire for torn shirts and jeans and stole off in the night for the seedier neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Undaunted, Withers persevered, and he\'s helped not only the homeless individuals he sees regularly, but also the city\'s medical infrastructure: One study determined that Operation Safety Net\'s work with the homeless saves a quarter of a million dollars a year in emergency-room costs.

People have taken notice. Operation Safety Net has been reproduced in other U.S. cities, including San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago. And Withers has co-founded the International Street Medicine Symposium, an annual opportunity for street-medicine practitioners throughout the world to come together and share best practices. \"I think were reaching a point in our society\", says Withers, \"where we have to decide whether were in it together or going our separate ways. Street medicine has the capacity to challenge conventional prejudice . . . It could facilitate a new and unified vision of community and commitment to each other.\"