A Man and His Mission: Dr. Jim Withers
Dr. Jim Withers, of Operation Safety Net, makes house calls to the homeless and envisions street medicine as a mission of mercy on a global scale.
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Dr. Jim Withers, who has been practicing street medicine since 1992, talks to a homeless man who has a chest cold.
Photo by Martha Rial
An old woman in a long gray coat sits shyly in the corner, nursing a small cup of coffee. Withers approaches her first, discovers she has a sore throat and offers her lozenges and water. He knows nearly everybody here. Most complain of minor ailments, until one surprisingly young woman shares that she is homeless and terminally ill with cancer.
“Getting people into better health care is often a process,” Withers explains after she’s gone, but this patient is afraid to undergo surgery and is wary of being judged by more traditional doctors in the more conservative setting of a big-city hospital. Withers looks crestfallen for the first time tonight. He can treat her nausea, but beyond that, there’s nothing more he can do for her but pray and encourage her to see an oncologist.
They climb back into the Jeep and head for the North Side near the entrance to I-279, where their luck worsens. They’re finding sleeping bags but few patients.
Under one highway overpass, they find evidence of a homeless camp, but the only living thing is a large river rat scurrying around. As they pull up to the “apartments,” as the homeless call this abandoned-building foundation made of recessed concrete compartments open on one side, Sallows lives up to his Iroquois name. A single turkey feather protruding from his black beret, he flips on a flashlight and disappears into the dark building. Inside, he navigates an obstacle course of plastic bottles, shopping carts and charcoal grills until he reaches the structure’s rear wall where he finds several sleeping bags and gently stirs their inhabitants.
He has located several of Withers’s regular patients, including 31-year-old Ron Painter, a former firefighter from McKees Rocks who lost his job and home four years ago while suffering from undiagnosed cases of bipolar and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “It was difficult to work,” Painter says. “I had a hard time concentrating.”
He is happy to see Withers tonight, lifting up his Ben Roethlisberger jersey so the doctor can listen to his chest with his stethoscope. Withers gives him an antibiotic after diagnosing him with bronchitis. He also prescribed medicine for Painter’s mental illnesses.
The young man says he feels optimistic about the future. Using the top of a barrel as a makeshift desk and light from a small campfire, Withers signs paperwork so Painter can apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medical Assistance. Painter says he’s been living here in the apartments for a year because it’s relatively “warmer and safer” than most homeless camps. But, he says, “I want to find my own place.”
Withers says Operation Safety Net case managers may be able to help with that goal, too. Sitting in his office the next morning beneath a framed photo of Mother Teresa, Withers notes that Operation Safety Net, the group he founded in 1993 with a $50,000 startup grant from the Sisters of Mercy, does more these days than fund street medicine and operate homeless shelters.
With the assistance of local government, charitable foundations, corporate sponsors and individual donors, the group is also finding permanent housing for the chronically homeless. Withers says that Operation Safety Net has moved 525 of the nearly 2,200 homeless men, women and children in the area off the streets and into apartments and homes during the last four-and-one-half years—numbers confirmed by Rich Venezia, director of Allegheny County’s Bureau of Hunger and Homeless Services.
“We have not had a major problem with homelessness compared to other big cities, and Dr. Withers and his team from Mercy and Operation Safety Net are the reason why,” Venezia declares, “not only in terms of providing physical health care, but housing—short-term and long—the full gamut of services they provide.” He adds: “We can’t force the homeless to come and seek help where we are, but they engage the population, win their confidence and trust in order for them to come in and accept help.”