Story by Debbi Casini Klein | Audio edited by Louis D’Aria | Cover photo courtesy of Archie Carpenter for Pittsburgh Mercy Health System
For more than 20 years, Dr. Jim Withers has been making his rounds in a most unusual way as “The Pittsburgh Street Doctor.”
He started his mission in 1992, giving medical care to the homeless. He makes his rounds usually at night, under bridges, alleyways, highway overpasses and riverbanks. He began dressing down like a homeless person, feeling that it made him more approachable and welcoming into their situation.
“I think I was really trying not to come off as a doctor with the answers to other people’s problems,” Withers said. “I really wanted to come in under the radar. I really wanted to show respect.”
A year later, Operation Safety Net was born. It is a program of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and one of the nation’s first full-time street medicine programs. Under Withers’ direction, many medical students and other volunteers go out into the streets — some by day, most by night — to help the homeless.
Withers treats more than 1,200 homeless a year. Operation Safety Net has grown beyond health care for the homeless, helping them find shelter and permanent housing. The model has now expanded to more than 45 communities in the U.S. and 90 worldwide.