Watch CBS News

Documentary tells story of Operation Safety Net

Documentary tells story of Operation Safety Net
Documentary tells story of Operation Safety Net 03:21

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Most every day for the past thirty years, Dr. Jim Withers has gone out to the streets and the encampments and given medical treatment to those experiencing homelessness in Pittsburgh. His brand of street medicine has spawned operations around the world. 

Dr. Withers' story is the subject of a new documentary premiering Wednesday night. He and filmmaker Jeff Sewald sat down with KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan with an advanced look.

Three decades ago, Dr. Jim Withers began treating Pittsburgh's homeless in the street and Operation Safety Net was born. Today, his example of street medicine has become a movement across the world.  

As the son of a country doctor in Central Pennsylvania, Jim Withers spent his childhood going out on house calls with dad. When he became a physician himself at Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital, he began going out at night to minister to people experiencing homelessness. 

"It opened up my eyes, how many people were out there, how sick they were. Pretty soon I realized I have to take a backpack with medicine and start treating people. And then nurses heard about it. They started volunteering. Pretty soon we had a health system under the bridges," Withers said. 

With that Operation Safety Net was born. And for the past three decades, Withers and his corps of volunteers have treated Pittsburgh's homeless population on a daily basis. And he has spread the idea and the template to cities and countries around the world. 

"I've pushed it. I've traveled to every continent and helped other cities start programs. And we started calling it 'street medicine,'" Withers said. 

"Jim Withers started the street medicine movement which is now around the world," Sewald said.

The Street Medicine Institute founded in Pittsburgh has spawned operations on six continents. And now, the founder of this amazing movement has become the subject of a new documentary called "Go to the People," premiering tonight at Duquesne University. In it, local filmmaker Jeff Sewald travels with Withers across the country to Europe, Africa and India. 

"Jim hasn't done this to make himself famous. In fact, he shies away from that, but I thought his story has to be told," Sewald said. 

Withers says the model of compassion and care has resonated with people of all nationalities and faiths. 

"Hindus and Muslims and Jewish people and atheists and Buddhists all relate to it. They say, 'this is the meaning of our faith,' going and helping those most excluded," Withers said. 

"So I've really had a unique opportunity to walk the street all over the world and see people activated and excited about doing basically what Jesus did. Yeah, it's really cool that way," Withers said.  

Jesus said, "the poor you shall always have with you." And Withers says the situation in Pittsburgh and across the country is the worst he's seen. While he believes in comprehensive solutions, including more permanent housing, he intends to continue treating these people where they are. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.