In 1991, in the wake of the “Reverence for Life” symposium that led to the creation of the U.S. Schweitzer Fellows Programs, Dr. Jim O’Connell told the Schweitzer newsletter:

“Realistically, I think the homeless, who are the poorest of the poor, will always be with us. But in my heart I firmly believe that the face of homelessness will only change when people learn to recognize their own frailty, mortality, and humanity.”

O’Connell — President of Boston Health Care for the Homeless both then and now, and a current ASF Board Member — has made changing the face of homelessness his life’s mission. And yesterday, he was awarded the prestigious J.H. Kanter Prize for his commitment to — and success in — enhancing health care delivery for Boston’s homeless population. (Health Care for the Homeless is the U.S.’s largest program for providing the homeless with primary medical and mental health care; click here for a 2008 New York Times article on the program and O’Connell.) 

In addition to mentoring individual Schweitzer Fellows and speaking at the Boston Schweitzer Program’s monthly meetings, O’Connell has served as a role model for health professionals committed to meeting the needs of society’s most vulnerable with compassion and effectiveness. In 2006, the Globe called O’Connell “probably the closest thing Boston has to a fully functioning saint,” adding:

To most passersby . . .  street dwellers are nameless, faceless nuisances. To O’Connell, they are people in dire need. He’s learned not only their names, but their ailments and quirks. He persuades them to visit his two clinics. He opened a convalescence home for those recovering from illness or racked by disease.

”He is,” [MGH Surgeon Dr. Cary W. Akins] said, ”Boston’s equivalent of Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.”

And he’s inspiring countless health professionals — including Schweitzer Fellows — via his powerful example. Here are a just a few of the Schweitzer Fellows who are following in O’Connell’s footsteps, working with homeless patients — and in the process working to change the face of homelessness:

  • 2009-10 Boston Fellow Elizabeth Samuels, a student in the Tufts University School of Medicine’s MD/MPH Program, is collaborating with Dr. Ralph Vetters at Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center to develop a peer youth health education and outreach project for homeless youth. The project trains street-identified youth to identify and respond to health care needs among their peers. Utilizing harm reduction and youth empowerment approaches to education and medical care, the goal of the project is to increase insurance coverage and primary care enrollment among homeless youth by eliminating barriers to care.
  • 2009-10 Bay Area Fellow Michael Herndon, a student at Touro University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, has partnered with the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, CA to develop a program that will bring aid to the Bay Area homeless.  His program  utilizes a Mobile Outreach Unit to provide food, water, clothing, basic hygiene kits and minor medical care to the people it serves.  The goal is to encourage displaced community members to get their lives back on track through the resources available at the rescue mission.
  • 2009-10 Los Angeles Fellow Lynne Chang, a student at UCLA Med, is implementing an outreach-based syringe exchange program for the homeless injection drug users in Los Angeles, as well as working to improve delivery of health services and and education to that population.