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Pittsburgh doctor has spent 30 years making ‘house calls’ to those living on the streets

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence:

Jim Withers reflects on 30 years of practicing ‘street medicine’
(0:00 - 8:35)

Pittsburgh Mercy’s internal medicine physician, Dr. Jim Withers has spent the last 30 years meeting people living on the streets and treating them there; making “house calls” to people experiencing homelessness. He founded Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net program.

Withers says that his initial motivation to practice street medicine came from wanting to break the stigma against people experiencing homelessness, particularly for his students and hospital residents.

“I owed the folks under the bridges an apology for how they had been tossed aside and neglected,” says Withers, on his early experience coming to homeless camps. “Certainly, if you go into a camp, you have to be welcomed in, but for me, it was also an act of contrition to say, ‘I'm not the boss now. I want you to teach me what you need.’”

Addiction treatment has become more a recent focus of his work, due to the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. More than the “street medicine” program, Operation Safety Net has grown to include a drop-in health clinic, winter shelter, and legal services.

Rising homelessness in the city has led to a spike in the demand of services, but Withers says the opening of a low-barrier shelter on Second Avenue is an important component to meet the needs of the community.

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Legal analyst says the raid of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home was ‘by the book’
(8:41 - 15:44)

The FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida on Monday. NPR reported the raid concerned presidential records Trump removed from the White House when he left office in January 2021, and may have been taken to Mar-a-Lago.

For the FBI to have entered the residence, they would have needed to be granted a search warrant by a judge, after raising probable cause of a crime. WESA’s legal analyst David Harris says the process was likely reviewed at the highest levels of the Justice Department, due to the involvement of a former president.

“This would almost certainly have gone before, not just the director of the FBI, but the deputy attorney general and the attorney general himself before going to that independent federal judge,” says Harris. “There's no way it gets out into the world without the tightest, closest scrutiny.”

The information vacuum left in the wake of the raid is not uncommon for the Justice Department, despite mounting questions regarding the reason for the search. Harris says more details could be shared by the Trump, who would have been provided a copy of the search warrant by the agents.

While some Trump allies have suggested a political motivation for the search, Harris says it’s unlikely.

“If they were doing something unusual, perhaps that would show some kind of political bias or motivation, but they're not. They're playing it exactly according to the book.”

Local early childhood program to receive $170,000 state grant
(15:49 - 22:30)

At the beginning of this month, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that more than $384 million in grants would be distributed to early childhood education programs across Pennsylvania. This funding is intended to help families access these early learning programs. Maple Unified Student Academy (MUSA) in Homestead is one such program receiving this money.

MUSA has been awarded $170 thousand, which will be used to accept an additional 17 students. The program is currently limited to serving 20 students.

“I get calls every day begging for spots,” says Hannah Sitz, executive director at MUSA. “That's what, you know, the whole goal of this increased funding is, so that we can try to meet some of that need. Even expanding and almost doubling our capacity is not going to meet the full need in the area.”

Sitz says the grant will also be used to help increase pay for staff.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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