Dr. Jim Withers used to purposely dress like a homeless person because he wanted to provide medical treatment to homeless individuals. Today, his initiative has become a national phenomenon in the United States.
Dr. Withers received some instructions from Mike Sallows, 24 years ago. According to the instructions, he was advised against acting like a jerk and dressing like a doctor. Sallows gave these instructions when Dr. Withers decided to join him in providing healthcare to a population- in Pittsburgh - that had been expelled from the community: the homeless.
Since then, the duo has transformed their visits to back alleys, riverbanks, overpasses, and bridges into Operation Safety Net. The network is made up of medical volunteers and homeless outreach workers and is recognized as America’s full-time street medicine program. Operation Safety Net boasts of reaching more than 10,000 people and facilitating the transitioning of more than 1,200 people into housing.
"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."
Dr. Withers explained that the motivation came from his concern about the way people treated the homeless. He also admitted that the initiative would help him find a place where he could interact with the ostracized population. He adds that being ‘out’ gave him new experiences and enjoyment, despite the hardships that came with the task.
Huffington Post published an interview where Withers describes how he and Sallows (who was homeless) used to dress like homeless people, sneaking out in the night. According to Withers, the move made him realize, “the level of fear and bitterness towards the medical community and general community. As I began to look at the medical issues, I began to realize there were people with bad wounds, unhealed ulcers, cancers and all kinds of things that weren’t being addressed.”
CNN recognized Dr. Withers efforts and named him one of its Top Ten Heroes in 2015. The news network acknowledged his leading force in nurturing street medicine.
Dr. Withers told CNN, he hopes that in the future, “…every person who is still on the streets will have medical care that comes directly to them and says, ‘You matter.’ And I’d love to see every medical school have a classroom of the streets.”
“Besides just the good that it does and the money that it saves, having street medicine in every community transforms us. We begin to see that we’re all in this together,” He adds.
Through Wither’s own non-profit organization, Street Medicine Institute, and Operation Safety Net, the homeless have continued to receive proper healthcare. For both networks, the overall goal has been to treat others the same way we would expect to be treated if we were in a similar situation. Withers is championing for the fact that everyone is worthy of our compassion, and that is probably why he decided to connect with those who had been excluded from his care.