Dr. Jim Withers is the Founder of the Street Medicine Institute.  The Institute evolved as an off-shoot of his groundbreaking work with Pittsburgh Mercy's Operation Safety Net, the street medicine program he established and continues to work with in Pittsburgh, PA.  Dr. Withers describes his experience with street medicine in his Ted Talk here.

JW Blog - September 9, 2019

I thought this would be a good time to give an update on some of my recent travels.  At the kind invitation of the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, I flew to Australia last month to speak at their annual symposium. The theme was about connecting hospitals to communities, so I was delighted to talk about how street medicine was a possible template (and philosophical foundation) for such a connection.  They could not have been kinder to me and I was (once again) deeply impressed with how our colleagues within the healthcare system are genuinely searching for better ways to meet the needs of their communities.  As always, I emphasized that we have much to learn from those who have been excluded.   

While in Brisbane, I was thrilled to be able to catch up with Karen Walsh and the folks from the Micah Projects.  They have built an incredible array of services based on their work with the rough sleeping population and other groups who have been marginalized.  I had the fantastic opportunity to see many of their programs and make street rounds with two outstanding teams.  I want to particularly thank Joe, Gillian and Kim for letting me meet the people and witness their skillful street work.  I loved the individuals I met while making rounds, especially one man who shared accounts of his struggles on the streets with such kindness and humor.  I also enjoyed my time with Jim who has been with Karen from the early days and was an incredible source of wisdom.  By a typically bizarre street medicine coincidence, I had dinner with Jim O’Connell (who happened to be visiting Australia) at the home of Karen Walsh. 

Brisbane was not my only stop in Australia.  Fortunately, I was able to visit Melbourne and see the work of Dr. Ed Poliness.  I met Ed at the last International Street Medicine Symposium in Rotterdam and we immediately hit it off.  Ed is kind of the Nigel Hewitt of Melbourne.  Through him I was able to see some of the many things happening in that town, particularly the work at the Living Room. Harm reduction is very advanced in Australia and they do it very well.  I really enjoyed street rounds with Chito and Mark.  Also – since I first arrived in Melbourne without my luggage, I want to thank the Living Room for supplying me with clothes! 

My final visit was Sydney; what a lovely city and harbor!  Much of my time there was spent with Rev. Bill Crews, who created the Exodus Foundation.  I had the chance to attend his church and see the wide array of services they have created for those in need.  I came early (anonymously) and participated in breakfast service along with the homeless and poor.  They were so welcoming and I truly enjoyed the company of the people.  Bill shared his amazing life story with me over Chinese food the night before I left.   

My street medicine impression of the cities I saw was that the needs are significant. The indigenous people (as always) have suffered greatly and are over-represented in the homeless population.  Addiction issues are profound.  There seems to be a strong sense of compassion and a desire for social justice. There are great leaders and dedicated workers, but they need to come together more.  There was talk of an Australian street medicine symposium, which I would love to see.  

One of the things I love about traveling to see other street medicine programs around the world is how people make you feel like you are family.  I know many of you do travel to see your colleagues in other communities.  I would encourage everyone to do the same.  It is fascinating to see the same love and commitment to the people in an entirely new place.  And as I was reminded, such travel not only informs and inspires us, but it also affirms that we are not alone in our love for our sisters and brothers on the streets. 

The good news is that this October 21-23 we can all experience our global street medicine community at the 15thInternational Street Medicine Symposium in Pittsburgh!  I would encourage you all to register now on our web site.  I have a feeling it is going to be really popular this year… See you then!

JW Blog - March 18, 2019

After allowing too much time elapse I would like to share some experiences and thoughts with you.  For those who were not able to make it to the last symposium in Rotterdam, it was a fantastic event.  Great thanks to Igor, Marcel and all the team from the Netherlands!  One of the take away lessons for all of us was how a city can make enormous progress in reducing homelessness when organizations and government work together.  Despite being away from our traditional base in the United States, there were over 300 participants.  The presentations just seem to get better each year and our keynote, Jeff Olivet, truly inspired us to reflect on how to partner with advocates to address the deeper issues of social justice that lead to homelessness.  But by far my favorite moment was the official launching of the Street Medicine Institute Student Coalition.  Brianne Feldpausch, a medical student from Michigan State University, organized a group of student leaders to promote the global student street medicine movement.  I am pleased to report that this momentum has grown and they have subsequently identified and connected 30 health science schools that either have street medicine programs or are working towards that goal.   

I left immediately from Rotterdam to fly to Delhi in order to visit my dear friend Harsh Mander.  Many of you will remember Harsh from his powerful keynote address at the 13thInternational Street Medicine Symposium in Allentown in 2017.  He is the founder of the Centre for Equities Studies, and from that platform he and his team are helping to revolutionize social justice in India.  I suggest you all look him up and read his books.  In recent years, Harsh has created four new street medicine programs in Delhi, Patna, Jaipur and Hyderabad.  I was blessed to join them on street rounds in Delhi and visit the work in Patna.  The poverty is shocking, but the spirit of solidarity is strong.  I loved the teams who visit the streets, and I was thrilled to visit the new recovery centers they have established for the unsheltered homeless with a variety of serious illnesses.  At my talk in Patna, the medical students were particularly enthusiastic which made me quite happy.  My deepest impression from the time I spent in India was that Harsh has truly built upon a profound respect for the humanity of those living on the streets and is creating a future in which social justice will be central.  I hope we can make one of our future symposiums in Delhi!

From Delhi I flew home, and then the following day I was off to Sao Paulo Brazil.  Dr. Mario Campos is another incredible leader who has created his own street medicine movement within Brazil where there are now four new street medicine programs.  Again I was privileged to lecture at the local medical school and enjoyed witnessing their work on the streets of Sao Paulo.  The needs of Sao Paulo are enormous, but so is the volunteer spirit!  There are literally hundreds of volunteers all working together in their Sunday street clinics.  There are social workers, physicians, nurses, physical therapists and even street clowns. You can feel the love and joy coming from those who serve, and those who are being served.  In a very different setting, I felt the same fierce sense of community I had just witnessed on the other side of the world in India.  It’s hard to describe how inspiring it all was, and to see how street medicine is able to catalyze so much goodness. 

 We had hoped to join our wonderful partners in Miami for the upcoming 15thInternational Street Medicine Symposium this year, but were unable to find a suitable venue.  I am hoping we can partner in the future as they have been doing fantastic work in Miami for many years.  The SMI board elected to return the 2019 symposium to Pittsburgh – the first time ever to repeat a city location.  I am so excited to invite you all back!  I could not be more proud of my home organization, Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, which will be co-hosting along with Dr. Pat Perri’s Center for Inclusion Health.  Things are falling nicely into place so make sure to join us.  With any luck we will be able to show the Street Medicine Documentary film that has been 3 ½ years in the making!   

Well, that’s just a small part of all that is happening in the world of street medicine. Colleagues all over the world continue to pioneer new initiatives to bring care to those most in need, while others work to design research tools to document the effectiveness of that care. Health systems are becoming aware of the street medicine movement and are beginning to embrace the logic of going to the people who have fallen through the cracks.  Students who are changing healthcare are emerging in greater numbers. But beyond all this, I can assure you that something more profound is happening.  Hope and love are growing under bridges, in dark alleys, in slums, in the woods and abandoned buildings where too many of our brothers and sisters still dwell.  We are affirming our deep connection and commitment to each other.  This is the foundation we need to reimagine ourselves. I urge you all to continue and pray for your success.

Prior Blogs:

July 27, 2018