‘Street Doctor’ Provides Health Care For Homeless

Withers leads Operation Safety Net, the nation’s first full-time street medicine program, and estimates his team has treated about 10,000 people in Pittsburgh alone.
By @katierucke |
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    Dr. Jim Withers watches over as a medical student gives aid to a homeless person.

    Dr. Jim Withers watches over as a medical student gives aid to a homeless person.

    For the past 20 years, Dr. Jim Withers has anonymously brought his medical expertise to the streets of Pittsburgh to treat the homeless.

    Known locally as the “street doctor,” Withers says he began to reach out to and treat homeless people in 1992 with the help of a man named Mike Sallows, who used to be homeless and still knew some people who were living on the streets.

    Withers said he viewed his work with the homeless as a way to combine his career with social justice, and said it was a creative way to meet and treat people with medical needs.

    “I worked with domestic violence victims earlier,” Withers said, adding that it shaped his thinking, since he realized these women were “living in a different horrible reality,” and says for the most part, the American health system didn’t have any concept of what kinds of health issues they were facing.

    And just like the American health care system failed to provide for domestic violence victims, Withers said it neglected the homeless. So one day, Withers dressed up as a homeless person and began treating people on the streets.

    Armed with a backpack filled with some medical supplies and free medicine from drug reps he met at the local hospital he worked at, Withers said he began to try to help heal people. But Withers says it took him awhile to earn the trust of the homeless community.

    “The level of fear and bitterness towards the medical community and general community hit me full blast,” Withers said. “As I began to look at the medical issues, I began to realize there were people with bad wounds, unhealed ulcers, cancers and all kinds of things that weren’t being addressed.”

    As word spread about his work with the homeless, Withers said he was joined by two other people, and now there is a national network of medical students and volunteers who venture out and treat the homeless in Pittsburgh four nights a week.

    Part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, Withers leads the nation’s first full-time street medicine program, known as Operation Safety Net, and estimates that his team has treated about 10,000 people in Pittsburgh alone and provided 900 with housing.

    “It’s a hard life on the street,” Withers said, since the average age of death is about 47 years old. He says it’s hard to truly understand what life is really like for homeless people, so unless you can see through their eyes and understand their reality, you won’t know how to best serve them.

    Withers says he and his fellow volunteers often treat homeless people for a wide variety of medical conditions normal people suffer from as well, which includes high blood pressure and heart disease. But unlike those people not living on the streets, Withers says homeless people’s medical conditions often accelerate since they are largely left untreated.

    Other medical conditions that Withers and his team help the homeless with include frostbite and injuries some homeless people attain from being beaten up.

    Although Withers says he has lost count of all of the people he has met along the way, he said he is far from the only one doing this work and says there is a global grassroots community actively helping the homeless in about 90 countries.

    When asked what message he wants to send to the American public, Withers said “Every street person in the world should have access to healthcare, and every medical school should have a classroom that works out in the streets.”

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