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‘Rough Sleepers’ follows a doctor devoted to the homeless
Tracy Kidder’s latest book is about the moral value of small victories in a world of big problems
How much difference can one virtuous person really make? It’s an old and not-so-simple question. The bigger and more deeply entrenched humanity’s problems appear to be (and they certainly seem massive and extremely entrenched at the moment), the more apt we are to doubt that a single do-gooder — even one overflowing with energy and savvy — can change the world.
No writer has chronicled this terrain more thoughtfully than the journalist Tracy Kidder. He is drawn to stories of brainy people who boldly take on sweeping social problems — most famously Paul Farmer, who revolutionized the delivery of medicine in an isolated region of Haiti and became the subject of Kidder’s acclaimed “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (2003).
Kidder’s excellent new book, “Rough Sleepers,” tells a story similar in some obvious respects. It chronicles the work of Jim O’Connell — like Farmer, a Harvard-educated, mission-driven empath — who for decades has led the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. With about 10,000 homeless patients annually, 600 staffers and numerous clinic sites, O’Connell’s initiative is sprawling and impressive. But he devotes much of his time to the program’s Street Team, which travels around Boston in vans providing medical services to “rough sleepers” — homeless people who opt to live outside rather than staying in shelters.