Dr. Jim Withers wanted to treat the homeless community in Pittsburgh. In order to do so, he had to find a way to earn their trust and ensure that the help he offered would be accepted.

So, he dressed like one of them. He even bought a book to learn how.

“I read about how to dress like a homeless person and mingle,” Withers said in a recent video created by NationSwell, a company featuring stories of “American renewal.”

Jim Withers

Dr. Jim Withers and a formerly homeless man began Operation Safety Net two decades ago and have been offering those on the streets medical care since. (Image source: YouTube)

Though Withers’ efforts are gaining some attention thanks to this video, the “street doctor,” as he’s known, is no stranger to media coverage. Pittsburgh Magazine published an in-depth feature on Withers in 2011, and for more than two decades Withers’ work on the streets at night has captured attention.

One day in the 1990s, Withers asked a formerly homeless man, Mike Sallows who passed out blankets and food, if he could join him to care for those on the streets medically.

Sallows advice? “Don’t dress like a doctor and don’t act like a jerk,” Withers recalled of the man he said “terrified” him at first.

“Don’t dress like a doctor and don’t act like a jerk.”
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The pair started Operation Safety Net officially after that more than 20 years ago. Sallows joked that he still terrifies Withers sometimes.

The nonprofit is run through the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. Through this work, Withers treats about 1,200 homeless individuals each year.

Withers admitted in the video that some homeless “take it upon themselves to break you in” to their community.

operation safety net

The Operation Safety Net team is out in the field offering care five nights a week. Image source: YouTube)

Using supplies that can fit in his backpack, Withers applies splints and bandages, hands out vitamins and pain killers to those going without formal care.

“We have to stretch ourselves and care enough to stretch ourselves into their world and to their reality,” Withers said. “To me, that’s a whole new frontier for rediscovering how health care can be delivered.”

Go on a ride along with Withers as he treats those on the streets, something he does with a team five nights a week, in the video:

“One of the things that happens is you start to see yourself in street people. And if you’re honest with yourself you see ‘I could have been there; that could have been me,’” Withers said.

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