Street medicine, made in Pittsburgh: A gritty, compassionate solution to everything that’s wrong with health care.

Dr. Jim Withers, who established the practice of street medicine, visits with Amanda Stedman, 59, in UPMC Mercy Hospital on Jan. 17, 2018. Withers helped Stedman many years ago get off the streets and find permanent housing. She has been housed for the last few years. Withers has kept in contact with her through the years and wanted to visit with her prior to a surgical procedure. (Photo by Justin Merriman/PublicSource)

Editor’s Note: On behalf of PublicSource, writer Timothy Maddocks spent six days between October 2017 and February 2018 embedded with street medicine teams. He attended the 2017 International Street Medicine Symposium and interviewed more than three dozen street medicine practitioners, from Pittsburgh and beyond. Though the days are still warm as we publish this story, soon people experiencing homelessness will again be subject to severe drops in temperature. This story sheds light on how street medicine practitioners aim to help the population throughout the year and how it plays out at the most critical times.  
On a gray January morning, the team from Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net follows the hollow sound of a dog barking in the distance to the tent that they’ve been looking for. And there it is, between the Allegheny River and the gravel bike trail: a mismatched collage of older tents and tarps, faded yellow and bright orange. This is the home of a man and his dog.
Nurse practitioner Janice Kochik, 54, and registered nurse Kelsi Bockenhauer, 23, hang back near the river. They allow for space while outreach specialist Calla Kainaroi, 26, slowly approaches the patchwork home staked to a winter-worn patch of grass. She calls out hello —How are you two doing? — and sets down her offering: a couple bottles of water and a fresh pair of socks.
In their last few encounters, the man has spoken little more than a hello. Kainaroi knows the man is shy and private and that he has a special bond with his dog, so much so that he always speaks in the plural, insisting they are “we.” But today, Kainaroi is being particularly deft. She has some good news. She’s gotten word from Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services that there is a vacant apartment for which he is eligible. Not only that: the landlord will allow dogs. His dog — they!


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