Twenty-two years ago, Dr. Jim Withers co-founded Operation Safety Net, an outreach program dedicated to providing free healthcare to the uninsured, homeless people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Withers, 53, is a graduate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and started trying to practice “street medicine” in May 1992. However, he quickly realized he needed a guide to show him the ropes and how to gain the people’s trust. He soon met Mike Waoka Sallows, a man who had experienced homelessness and spent six years bringing blankets and food to those in need.
Sallows’ original advice to the doctor: “Don’t dress like a doctor and don’t act like a jerk.”
The pair has been making weekly rounds throughout downtown Pittsburgh ever since.
They typically carry and distribute sandwiches, splints, bandages, cough medicine, inhalers, antibiotics and the like to treat minor injuries and ailments; although Dr. Withers has been known to come across “patients” with much more serious illnesses, even cancer.
Operation Safety Net has now grown to feature a full-time, paid staff that includes social workers, case managers, physicians, nurses and outreach workers, as well as at least 30 volunteers. They estimate they treat at least 1200 people a year.
Withers’ vision is simple: “Everybody matters. We need to look out for the people that are the most ostracized in our own communities and that’ll make us better people.”