Tracy Kidder ’63 Discusses His 2023 Book Following Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Work Caring for Homeless People

Tracy Kidder presented his experiences working on providing healthcare for homeless patients in Boston.

Tracy Kidder ’63, Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed nonfiction author, spoke on his newest novel “Rough Sleepers” at All-School Meeting (ASM) on December 8. Kidder narrated the story of Dr. Jim O’Connell, who, since 1985, has been caring for homeless patients and founded the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

In addition to recounting O’Connell’s work, Kidder reflected on the process of writing and researching “Rough Sleepers.” Having shadowed O’Connell for five years, Kidder described the eye-opening interactions between the doctor and his homeless patients, experiences that reminded him to recognize the humanity in homeless people.

“I was struck most forcefully by the warmth of the relationships between [O’Connell,] this Harvard-educated doctor, and the patients and prospective patients that he encountered on the nighttime streets… I had rarely spoken to such people and congratulated myself when I had, but here was this doctor, pre-admiring the new people he met and acting with frank affection,” said Kidder.

He continued, “Encountering homeless people [in] Jim’s company transformed them for me. Seeing them with their doctor, joking, laughing, sharing stories, it was suddenly obvious that these people are every bit as human as I.”

In an interview with The Phillipian after the ASM, Kidder elaborated on his research and writing process. He shared what topics often spark inspiration for him to write a new story. 

“What’s interesting to me is always a person who is doing something for the world, and if I know nothing about it, so much the better. It’s a great privilege to be able to [learn about what] you don’t know much about… When what seems like chaos some, order starts to appear, it’s really delightful, that sense that you’ve actually created something [from] disparate materials,” said Kidder.

Considering the lack of public attention commonly accorded to the struggles of homeless people, Jacob Kaiser ’24 conveyed the pertinence of Kidder’s presentation. Kaiser emphasized the importance of raising awareness on this issue.

“[My family] lives across the street from Catholic charities, so homelessness is a problem that’s everywhere in city life. It’s right across the street from me, and yet, homeless people have not been the first group to come to mind when I think about taking action to make the world a better place. I think that I’m not alone in having that fault. It’s one of those problems that isn’t addressed as frequently as it should be, so I appreciated [Kidder’s] work in highlighting that,” said Kaiser.

Noting that many students at Andover come from urban backgrounds, Kaiser found Kidder’s presentation relevant to the Andover community. However, he believed Kidder could have discussed more ways for students to advocate for the issue of homelessness.

“I wish that Tracy Kidder had provided us with more actionable ways to support this issue, or to just become more aware of the various ways that this issue impacts people on the individual level, the economic level, the social level… I do agree that it didn’t feel very connected to us, and I think that he could have done a better job of highlighting ways in which us students are connected to this issue too,” said Kaiser. 

Keren Song ’26 appreciated Kidder’s storytelling approach to ASM, a method they found more engaging than previous ASMs. In the future, Song hopes that more speakers can incorporate elements of storytelling into their speeches.

“I appreciated [his] storytelling skills. It’s great that we’re getting famous, well-accomplished people for ASM, but I would like to see more storytellers at ASM. Ultimately, we’re the ones who are listening to stories, and I feel like it’s just as inspiring if someone else tells the inspiring story. It doesn’t have to be the inspiration themselves up there on the stage,” said Song.

Recalling his own Andover experience, Kidder reflected on how Andover was formative in his journey as a writer and acknowledged the changes in Andover’s teaching philosophy over the years. Kidder also encouraged students to cherish their time at Andover.

“I learned how to write here. I mean, I learned how to write an essay, a coherent essay. It was very hard…[but] try to enjoy it because all of this goes by obviously fast. It’s high school, everything goes by fast,” said Kidder.