Amazing Kids! Magazine

Amazing Mentor Spotlight Interview with Dr. Jim Withers

By Ashley Lin, Assistant Editor and Adult Spotlight Interviewer

 

What do you do when you’re sick? For me, I get to miss school, and my mom fusses over me for a few days. If I don’t get better, someone drives me to the hospital for a doctor’s check. I can easily get prescription medicine, and get healthy again. For most of us kids out there, this is the process we go through, and while we might not realize it, we are privileged to have these resources. Picture this: you’re a homeless student, and you suddenly get sick. What would you do? How would those people living and sleeping on the streets have access to health care or medicine when they’re usually ignored?

This is why, in 1992, Dr. Jim Withers dressed as a homeless person and began making medical visits to people living on the streets, with the help of formerly homeless, street-savvy individuals. Together, they made “house calls” to people on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pa., in alleys and under bridges, day and night. The idea was to work with the alienated and excluded poor of the city, and understand the reality and circumstances of the street homeless. Eventually, this became a mission to address the loose ends of homeless health care – and Operation Safety Net was born.

After receiving startup funding from a Pittsburgh Mercy Care for the Poor Fund grant, Operation Safety Net became an official Pittsburgh Mercy outreach program in 1993, and continues to work in hopes that no homeless person will slip through the cracks and die on the streets. Although no single organization can realistically prevent every death, the program continues to reach out and create innovative, real-world solutions to help end homelessness. Dr. Withers serves as the program’s full-time medical director. He and a team of approximately 30 dedicated staff continue to advocate for street medicine, which has become a global movement. Let’s hear more about this amazing work from Dr. Jim Withers himself!

Amazing Kids (AK): What inspired or called you to start making medical visits to people on the streets?

Dr. Jim Withers (JW): When I was a kid, my dad (who was a doctor) took me on house calls to see people in their homes. I thought it would be good to do the same thing with people who needed care on the streets. I teach medicine, so it was very important for me to take students with me as soon as I was able.

Dr. Jim Withers, Nic Wilder, and Christopher Roach on street rounds with Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net.

AK: How did you turn an idea into an organization with such great impact? Who and what resources helped you along the way?

JW: I was – and still am – fortunate to work for Pittsburgh Mercy, a great, mission-driven organization started by the Sisters of Mercy. They were able to provide some of the key resources we needed to get started. Also, when people in the city heard about the work, they donated all kinds of things we needed.

AK: How has Operation Safety Net changed over time, and what are some goals you have for the future?

JW: We started as just a medical program, and we still take care of the health and human service needs of people, but over time we have been able to help them get into their own homes and into treatment for mental health and drug abuse if needed. In 2016, we served more than 1,600 people. We helped 579 of them find safe housing. We try to help people in every way they need assistance.

AK: What is street medicine, and can you help us understand the global movement surrounding it?

JW: “Street medicine” is a name I made up to describe bringing medical care to people living outside. As I found some other people who were doing the same thing, and as I taught people in other cities to do street medicine, it became more and more popular. I decided to dedicate myself to spreading it all over the world. There are now about 150 cities on six continents doing street medicine. I love that many times it is our former students who help to start the new programs.

AK: Can you tell us more about homeless people, and the challenges they face?

JW: The homeless on the streets face difficulties just finding a place to sleep. The weather can be very cold in some places and very hot in others. They face danger from bad people who may beat them up or rob them. And when a person who is experiencing homelessness does try to get help, people don’t always treat them well.

Dr. Withers makes house calls to a homeless encampment.

AK: Did anything surprise you about people’s circumstances when you first started making “house calls” to those on the streets?

JW: I didn’t realize how many people were living outside and how they had to hide at night to be safe. I didn’t realize how people living on the streets also took care of each other. I also didn’t realize how sick many of the people were.

Dr. Withers makes a house call to Lois B., whom Operation Safety Net helped to find safe housing.

AK: What is the most memorable moment you have had with a person Operation Safety Net served, and how has it impacted your life?

JW: After 26 years it is hard to pick one moment. I remember when I started how one man said, “I can’t believe someone cares that we are alive!” It is terrible to feel that way, and it motivates me to show people that others really do care and that we’ll continue to walk alongside them in their journey.

AK: What has been the most challenging part of your journey with Operation Safety Net so far, and how have you overcome it?

JW: I think the most challenging thing has been that this is a new kind of medical care that does not have a way to pay for the vital services it delivers. I have learned if you do the right thing and work with others who understand and support the mission, you can keep something good going anyway.

Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net on winter street rounds.

AK: What advice would you give to youth today who want to make a difference in their community, perhaps within the fields of health care and homelessness?

JW: My advice to young people is to trust your own feelings and thoughts. Then learn as much as you can about the things that matter to you by volunteering and talking to people (like me!) You have to study and improve yourself so that you can help others. Keep you eyes open for chances to connect things in new ways (like medical care and walking under bridges).

AK: Who has been a mentor or confidante to your throughout your life or experience with Operation Safety Net?

JW: I didn’t have a mentor to help me with street medicine, but I was inspired by my mom and dad (a nurse and a doctor) who worked with us in Central America when we were kids. I try to learn from everyone I admire, and also learn from people whom I don’t admire – to be different from them!

Thank you so much, Dr. Jim Withers, for taking the time to share with us today. Your story is inspirational and empowering, and I know we can all take something away and apply to our own communities. For our readers, learn more about Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety and ways you can help. Visit www.pittsburghmercy.org, and like Pittsburgh Mercy on Facebook and follow @PghMercy on Twitter and Instagram to stay updated!

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