Jim Withers began creating a secret life as a street doctor two decades ago, dressing as a homeless man and heading out into the night on a mission to help others.
“I think that health care has been a profound privileged part of society since the beginning of time,” Withers said. “So, this is a way in which we can build community and show through our actions our connection to our brothers and sisters.”
A year later, that secret transformed into an official program to help medical students learn how to see life through a different lens.
In 1993, Operation Safety Net was born, now serving more than 1,200 people in the Pittsburgh area each year, led by Withers of Forest Hills and his organization partner, Mike Sallows.
Withers, who is employed by the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, said Operation Safety Net offers a full range of services to unsheltered homeless people throughout the city. Sometimes, the organization will receive a call from someone who saw another living in a car. In one situation, a man admitted to the burn unit at the hospital had been living in a tent in Monroeville.
Daily and nightly rounds are made by a team of people to the North Side, South Side, Oakland, the Strip District, McKees Rocks and McKeesport. They also serve Braddock and the Hill District.
Withers originally was inspired to start such a program in an effort to pull medical students out of the comfort and structure of the hospital setting.
“It was a search for a classroom in which I could teach residents and students how to work on someone else’s terms,” Withers said. “Giving them the opportunity and forcing them to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To me, that is a totally different conceptual idea and I call it reality-based health care.”
During the rounds, medical volunteers and an outreach worker go out into the streets to help those in need. Outreach workers with Operation Safety Net all have had some personal experience with homelessness.
“We have a student with every team—medical nurse, pharmacy, etc.,” Withers said.
The impact of Operation Safety Net can now be felt around the world, as Withers also has created the Street Medicine Institute and a yearly international street medicine symposium, a forum where people from around the world gather to discuss best practices in street medicine and more.
“I think that it’s given me opportunities I never would have had to connect those ideas in a living way with like-minded educators from around the world,” Withers said. “My vision is that every medical school around the world will have a street medicine classroom and every community will have a street medicine program.”
Today, the work comes naturally. But in the beginning, Withers had to learn who he was on the street.
“It was a big learning curve to know what a street doctor is and I had to create it,” he said. “Now, it just feels really organic and natural. When visitors come out with us, they’re surprised by the friendships we have and the naturalness of it. Medical care, psychiatry and how it fits together.”
The work he’s done with the nonprofit has made him a well known man as well.
“It can make walking through downtown difficult because everybody knows me,” he said. “My daughter was out with me Monday and all week homeless guys have been saying 'hi' to her.”
In addition to giving medical students a chance to work outside of their comfort zones, along with giving help to those who need it most, Operation Safety Net also creates a new space for community.
“People get interested in the greater community and it bridges the gap of understanding,” Withers said. “It builds community as a whole.”
The program is funded entirely by grants, civic organizations, help from schools, volunteers and donations. Through Operation Safety Net, more than 800 people also have found housing. There are 21 people on the staff, all whose earnings are grant-funded.
Withers' philosophy on the work is simple.
“Unless you get close to something, you can’t begin to start solving the problem,” he said.
To read a story about the Street Medicine Institute, click here.