Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at the 85th commencement ceremony on May 21, 2016.



OConnell on street

Dr. James O’Connell’s lifelong dedication to helping the homeless fits perfectly with Elms College’s commitment to social justice. As commencement speaker, he will deliver an inspirational message to the Class of 2016, reminding the graduates of their responsibility to create a better world.

Elms College Selects Dr. James O'Connell, Advocate for the Homeless, as 2016 Commencement Speaker

Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at the 85th commencement ceremony on May 21, 2016.

O’Connell’s lifelong dedication to helping the homeless fits perfectly with Elms College’s commitment to social justice. As commencement speaker, he will deliver an inspirational message to the Class of 2016, reminding the graduates of their responsibility to create a better world.

“A special aspect of Dr. O'Connell's life that makes his invitation particularly meaningful is that he was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield for eight years at St. Joseph's Parish Grammar School in Newport, Rhode Island,” said Elms College President Mary Reap, IHM, Ph.D. “His life is a testament to the charism and mission of the sisters.”

“In so many ways, I am very much a product of the wonderful and devoted sisters who gave so much of themselves to ensure we had a foundation for living in today’s world,” O’Connell said. “Needless to say, I cannot tell you how much this honor truly means to me.”

Dr O'ConnellLast year, O’Connell published Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, a collection of stories and essays written during 30 years of caring for homeless persons in Boston. The book illuminates the humanity and raw courage of those who struggle to survive -- and find meaning and hope -- while living on the streets. Dr O'Connell

O’Connell graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 and received his master’s degree in theology from Cambridge University in 1972. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1982, he completed a residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

In 1985, he began full-time clinical work with homeless individuals as the founding physician of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), which aims to provide or ensure access to the highest-quality healthcare for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area. The nonprofit program now serves over 13,000 people each year in two hospital-based clinics (Boston Medical Center and MGH), and in more than 60 shelters and outreach sites in Boston.

O’Connell and his colleagues established the nation’s first medical respite program for homeless persons in 1985, with 25 beds nested within the Lemuel Shattuck Shelter. This innovative program now provides acute and subacute, pre- and postoperative, and palliative and end-of-life care in BHCHP’s 104-bed Barbara McInnis House.

In 1987, O’Connell began the first multidisciplinary team to care for homeless AIDS patients; in 1991, he started the nation’s first racetrack clinic to serve migrant and homeless workers in the backstretch areas of Suffolk Downs Racetrack. Four years later, working with the MGH Laboratory of Computer Science, O’Connell designed and implemented the nation’s first computerized medical records system for a homeless program. From 1989 to 1996, he served as the national program director of the Homeless Families Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And in 2000, he began an MGH-based “street team” that integrates and co-locates medical and psychiatric care for rough sleepers. MGH is the only private academic center to host such a team, O’Connell said.

Today, BHCHP is the largest and most comprehensive healthcare program for the homeless of the 240 programs around the country that are currently funded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. With a budget of $50 million (75% from Medicaid/Medicare, 25% from grants and philanthropy), the program has over 400 employees and has finished in “the black” each of the past 30 years.

O’Connell’s weekly routine includes 25-30 hours of clinical work caring for homeless persons at MGH and on the streets, 15 hours of administrative duties overseeing BHCHP, five hours teaching residents and students, and five hours in research.

An assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, O’Connell is also the editor of The Health Care of Homeless Persons: A Manual of Communicable Diseases and Common Problems in Shelters and on the Streets. His articles have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Circulation, the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Clinical Ethics and several other medical journals. He has been featured on ABC’s Nightline and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and in a feature-length documentary titled Give Me a Shot of Anything.

O’Connell has collaborated with homeless programs in many cities in the U.S. and around the world, including Los Angeles, London and Sydney. He has received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award in 2012 and The Trustees’ Medal at MGH’s bicentennial celebration in 2011. He also advocates at local, state and national levels, and was invited to the Obama White House to represent the issues of homelessness during the debate on healthcare reform.

His research is devoted to addressing the marked health disparities borne by homeless persons, publishing papers on various dimensions of healthcare for homeless persons including mortality, risk factors for death, tuberculosis and AIDS, elder homelessness, addictions and street homelessness. His team’s current research is focused on the care of rough sleepers on the streets of Boston, and the financial and health outcomes of placing chronically homeless persons in low-threshold supportive housing, including utilization of emergency departments and inpatient services.