The Humanity Behind Homelessness: Psychiatrist Katie Koh ’05 and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program

The Tang Institute and the Office of Community Engagement invited Katie Koh ’05, practicing psychiatrist at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) and Massachusetts General Hospital, to Andover for a lunchtime discussion on May 3. Koh shared her clinical and street outreach experiences helping unhoused patients, and her research into the health of homeless populations with Andover students.


Koh has spoken at Andover several times in previous years, according to Monique Cueto-Potts, Director of Community Engagement. During her presentation, Koh traced her work with homeless populations back to a chance encounter with an unhoused person in Harvard Square. Cueto-Potts hopes that Koh’s journey can remind students that they are not bound to a fixed career trajectory.


“When [Koh] was a student at Harvard, she just happened to [strike] up a conversation with a person who was homeless, and learned about the shelter that that person was staying in, and the rest was history. She was not expecting to have that conversation lead her to the rest of her professional career and passion. I think that that’s really an interesting angle for our students to hear, who often feel like they need to know exactly what they want to do, what hoops they have to jump through next, and where they’re going to land… I just think it’s important for students to think about being open to experiences,” wrote Cueto-Potts in an email to The Phillipian.


Sam Clare ’25, who attended the event, described the aspects of Koh’s talk that they found most memorable. They found Koh’s talk was inspiring and many of the stories comforting without shying from the harsh realities of homelessness. 


“Something that was memorable [were] the anecdotes that Dr. Koh shared of people whom she or members of her team worked with. Some were particularly uplifting, like a woman who was housed and is now working a stable job and engaged, while others ended in another round of homelessness or even death. She made sure to inspire without sugarcoating the realities of her work or the lives on the streets of her patients,” wrote Clare in an email to The Phillipian


Izzy An ’24 was struck by the storytelling elements of Koh’s talk. Beyond Koh’s humble and down-to-earth personality, An explained how she was affected by the moving and sometimes difficult stories that Koh spoke on.


“[Koh’s talk] was a lot about humanity, about the stories that she had encountered… Some of us in the workshop were literally moved to tears about some of the things that she was talking about, the situations that people were dealing with, and how society would treat them at times. It was not remotely like she was trying to take credit for any of [those] things. Her point was to just educate us and bring the topic to our attention and do so in a respectful manner,” said An.


Noting how sheltered the Andover community is from issues such as homelessness, An expressed appreciation for Koh’s work in spotlighting the struggles of homelessness. She pointed out the importance of being exposed to real-world issues and understanding the stories behind them.


Andover is sheltered in the sense of, we don’t really see homeless people at all on campus or in the cities around us… In general, in terms of seeing unhoused people or just people who are [in] very unstable living conditions and [experiencing] financial hardship, it’s difficult sometimes to understand the magnitude or what exactly they’re dealing with. It’s not in front of us. That was also really important, to gain some perspective [from] somebody who was working on the streets,” said An.


Reflecting on her key takeaways, Cueto-Potts emphasized how Koh prioritizes cultivating trust with her patients. She highlighted Koh and the BHCHP team’s dedication to supporting and building relationships with homeless populations.


“She talked a lot about how the BHCHP street team never gives up on anyone and never gives up their hope for people to get better.  It sometimes takes multiple attempts over the course of years to connect with people before they finally allow the doctors to work with them, and the street team always strives to meet each person where they are with compassion and based on their individual needs and comfort level,” wrote Cueto-Potts.


Cueto-Potts continued, “In a fast-moving world where we often just move on when we don’t see immediate results, I think this is an important message for our community to hear, that what really matters in life is always taking the time to see people, to truly see them and care about them enough to support them in the ways that they need and are ready for.”