Dr. Jim O'Connell has cared for people experiencing homelessness in Boston for nearly 40 years, pioneering an outreach van, breaking the ice with vulnerable populations and creating unbreakable community connections.
O'Connell is the founding physician and president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. His story is detailed in the book "Rough Sleepers," by journalist Tracy Kidder, who followed O'Connell for five years.
O'Connell, speaking on Greater Boston, said he stumbled into his role by accident, and the job took off. Soon after starting his work at Pine Street Inn decades ago, he implemented a community outreach van to connect with the homeless population and provide food, support and medical advice.
"It was the best thing that happened to me and I still think of that as my spiritual home in all of this," O'Connell said. He still regularly goes out in the van.
O'Connell said he's learned several lessons along the way while working with people experiencing homelessness. He stopped requiring appointments for his patients and went out to them instead. He also launched a respite program for people who need a safe place to recover after being discharged from the hospital.
He had some words of advice for residents of Boston who encounter people on the street.
"When you see someone on the streets and they're asking for something... the most important thing is to not look away from them, just look them in the eye," O'Connell said. If you don't want to give them money, offer a Dunkin' Donuts gift card, he said. Most importantly, acknowledge them and honor their humanity.
Watch: Dr. Jim O’Connell on nearly four decades of helping Boston’s unhoused