Two to three nights a week, Dr. Jim Withers rubbed dirt in his hair and muddied up his clothes before walking the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, searching for the very people he was trying to emulate.
For 23 years, Withers has been searching for the homeless – under bridges, in alleys, and along riverbanks – to bring them free, quality medical care.
At first, Withers camouflaged himself to blend in with the people he sought to help. He went in a disguise of worn-out clothing and dirty hair and face. He wasn’t mocking the homeless. Withers understood that if he was seen as an outsider, those in need might think he had come with unfriendly intentions. The homeless form a tight “brotherhood” for survival. So Withers had to prove he was one of them, so they might allow him into their ranks.
He calls it “street medicine.”
“I was actually really shocked how ill people were on the street. It was like going to a third-world country,” Withers said. “Young, old, people with mental illness, runaway kids, women (who) fled domestic violence, veterans. And they all have their own story.”
What started as a one-man mission has blossomed into a citywide program called Operation Safety Net. The organization provides a mobile medical van, walk-in clinics, a computerized database of homeless patients, and the ability to track and assist patients with health care and recovery.
In addition, Withers started a non-profit called the Street Medicine Institute, which supports communities in starting their own medical outreach programs for the homeless.
Watch his story in the video report here:
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