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CNN Selects Pittsburgher Among Top 'Heroes' Worldwide

Pittsburgh Mercy Health System

Jim Withers doesn’t consider himself a hero. But CNN disagrees. The network recently named the “doctor for the homeless” one of its Top Ten Heroes of 2015.

Voters can decide the nation's most inspirational hero online through November 15. CNN will announce the top hero of 2015 during a broadcast event December 6.  Each of the ten finalists will be awarded $10,000. 

“It’s pretty amazing,” Withers says, chuckling.  “It’s going to hopefully highlight the work we do, our mission, and most importantly, the people we serve.”

The people Withers and his team serve are the unsheltered homeless in Allegheny County. When he founded Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s Operation Safety Net in 1992, Withers was looking to provide both medical care for the homeless and change medical education, he said.

“To allow medical students, nursing students and others to get out of the hospital and go to where people who weren’t doing well were living and listen to their stories and actually just change how we looked at every patient.” 

Withers said many schools in other cities now insist their students practice street medicine.

He estimates that in the last 23 years he and his students have provided care to some 10,000 homeless individuals where they live, whether along riverbanks, in alleyways or beneath underpasses and bridges in the county.

While those “housecalls” continue, Withers says they’ve also been able to connect many homeless residents with primary care through a clinic in the South Side.

“There they have two family doctors and PAs (physician assistants) and a psychiatrist and peers and others who wrap around them with the same sense of care we have on the streets," he said. "So, its really wonderful to have that.”

Beyond medical care, Operation Safety Net has now found affordable housing for more than 1,300 homeless individuals.

“Some do really well in their own apartments; others we have to really keep an eye on and help; and, others we’ve put in situations where it’s more of a group home and we can help them sustain life off the streets,” Withers said.

Operation Safety Net's expansion has gone far beyond his expectations, he said.  

“Back in the early 90s, I was feeling good if we could keep someone alive.”