Tracy Kidder and Doctors Without Walls Medical Director Dr. Chelsea Dean | Credit: David Bazemore

On March 15, Doctors Without Walls — S.B. Street Medicine (DWW) hosted an informal conversation with Tracy Kidder about his latest book, Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People. The afternoon, al fresco gathering at The Creekside Restaurant & Bar for those directly serving the homeless population was the day after the UCSB Arts & Lectures presentation of Kidder’s Conversation with Pico Iyer. Guests at the DWW event included workers and volunteers from various nonprofits and S.B. County Health staff.

Kidder, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine, is also well-known for his profile of Dr. Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains. DWW Medical Director Dr. Chelsea Dean, who served as moderator, began by thanking Kidder for writing so articulately about the struggles facing those who serve homeless people.

Kidder related that the biggest thing he learned from spending time with Dr. O’Connell, who serves homeless people in Boston, is that every homeless person is just as human as everyone else and they all have reasons for being homeless. Most of those reasons, Kidder quickly added, qualify them for our sympathy and for admiration that they are still alive.

Kidder confessed that he, like most Americans, used to feel uncomfortable in the presence of homeless people, walking by them while seeing them only from the corners of his eyes. To those who make judgments about homeless people based on their appearances, viewing them as incurably primitive or even alien, he posited: How do you keep yourself clean in cities that have few public restrooms? The simple thing is, Kidder stated, homeless individuals lack the necessary facilities.

On terminology, Kidder was equally blunt: “Homeless” is exactly what these individuals are — they have no home, and many were banished from their families. Society should use this adjective, not try to sugarcoat the plight of these individuals with other, seemingly kinder words.

Kidder shared that one of the psychiatrists on O’Connell’s team estimated that 75 percent of the individuals their team serves had severely traumatic childhoods and that O’Connell thought the figure was even higher. Somehow these individuals survived the trauma, Kidder reflected, but the trauma is an important determinant in their lives. In the game of musical chairs that is our housing situation, Kidder commented, these are the people left standing.

Kidder turned positive, sporting a big grin when he noted that he does see a “wonderful mosaic of efforts going on to help the homeless” and that those providing assistance are doing a pretty good job of it. In the face of all the violence, chaos, and cruelty in the world, Kidder related, this helps get him through the day. 

Right here in Santa Barbara, we are fortunate to have that mosaic, and a key player is the event co-host, Doctors Without Walls — S.B. Street Medicine, which provides free medical care to homeless individuals. This dedicated team of 186 volunteers, about half of whom are UCSB pre-med students, provides care at about 14 outreach missions each week. Most are daytime, fixed-location events, but some are in the evening and some involve its Street Medicine Team going by van and on foot to reach those where they are at.

When care is needed beyond the scope of what DWW can provide, volunteers work with clients to overcome the logistical and psychological barriers to obtaining care. In 2022, DWW provided medical care in more than 1,000 encounters. It provided other types of assistance, including food and housing, many times more.

In November 2022, pursuant to a state-funded initiative, DWW entered into an agreement with CenCal Health to provide outreach to chronically homeless people for housing, medical care, and other assistance. Presently, DWW is managing six clients with its newly hired part-time case manager.

UCSB Arts & Lectures, which arranged for Kidder coming to town, also hosted a forum with Kidder on the challenges of covering health issues and homelessness at UCSB for student journalists and a representative from the S.B. Independent.

About half of all UCSB Arts & Lectures guests engage in some form of outreach or educational activity while in town. The organization relies heavily on the community for support for its lectures, performances, education, and outreach.

For more info about DWW, go to For more info about UCSB Arts & Lectures, go to

For coverage of other events, go to

DWW Medical Director Dr. Chelsea Dean and DWW’s Women’s Free Homeless Clinic Medical Director Jorie Nilson | Gail Arnold

DWW Outreach Nurse Cathy Mollkoy and DWW Lead Supervisor Lynn Matis | Gail Arnold

Volunteers Sophia Fischer and Morgan Smith | Gail Arnold

Guests enjoy the program. | Gail Arnold


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