“Rough sleepers” are homeless people who mostly choose to sleep on the streets rather than in indoor shelters. Their death rates are staggering, their health needs endless, their fates often in the hands of people who struggle to know what to do with them. However, there are some people whose mission is to care for rough sleepers, doing work that is both lifesaving and extremely frustrating. With a straightforward scrutiny that somehow sees, describes and reveals without flinching or judging, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder offers a long, hard look at the lives of people without housing in Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People.
As a writer, Kidder is intensely immersive. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, he traveled with Dr. Paul Farmer to observe groundbreaking health care work around the world. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder documents the three years he spent with the team that cares for Boston’s homeless population, making rounds with Dr. Jim O’Connell in his van late into the night. They treated people on the street or got them into hospitals and clinics to receive care. They offered blankets and food. They listened. Kidder was given deep access to their world—to the shelters, clinics, emergency rooms, hidden hangouts—and to the life of the man leading these efforts, fondly known by his many patients as Dr. Jim.
Readers also meet some of the people who live without homes in Boston in Rough Sleepers. There’s Tony Colombo, who spends his days at a respite house helping residents and staff and his nights on the street getting into trouble. Tony’s friend BJ, having lost both legs, needs constant help keeping upright in his wheelchair. Joanne Guarino is maintaining her sobriety after 30 years on the street and remains a regular guest speaker at Harvard Medical School, where she compels students to treat homeless people with compassion.
Dr. Jim and his team are the inspiring center of Kidder’s book. Now in his 70s, the Harvard-trained physician is still the city’s “street doctor,” sustaining and nurturing relationships with society’s most marginalized and vulnerable people. He realizes his work has come at the cost of his own family life and wryly compares himself to Sisyphus. His colleagues also grapple with the personal toll such vigilant care takes. Still, they see themselves as merely necessary, not heroic. In Rough Sleepers, Kidder begs to differ.