Third-year nursing students at the University of Lethbridge took to the streets this fall as part of their health promotion nursing course taught by instructors Morgan Magnuson (BN ’11) and Shannon Vandenberg (BN ’08, MSc ’13).

“We were involved with several organizations, including Alpha House, Streets Alive, Fresh Start and River House, in Lethbridge who serve unhoused people and those with lived or living experience of substance use,” says Vandenberg. “Our students worked through the nursing process and were involved in completing comprehensive assessments of the populations we were working with. They planned, implemented and evaluated various health initiatives, including safe sex, safer substance use, nutrition, stress, hygiene and staying healthy during cold winter months.”

Students were also involved in the City of Lethbridge Point-in-Time Homeless Count, the distribution of harm reduction supplies with AAWEAR (Alberta Alliance Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly), volunteering for various shifts at the Lethbridge Soup Kitchen, and providing education during the Lean on Your Library event at the Lethbridge Public Library.

“Our students had many opportunities to care for unhoused people exposed to an unregulated drug supply that is increasingly toxic and unpredictable,” adds Magnuson. “It was an important experience for our students, deepening their understanding of the sociopolitical context that shapes inequitable health outcomes in our community.”

Students in the course came away with valuable learning that will serve them throughout their careers.

“My biggest takeaway from this course is that every street-involved person is a unique individual with a lifetime of experiences, all of which have led them to the point in life where they are today,” says Rachel Lindsay, a student in the course. “These are resilient, strong and capable people, with as much to give and teach as anyone else you were to come across. Treat them with respect, dignity, kindness and grace, and the next time you walk by someone alone on a street corner, remember that a smile or a friendly hello will go a long way.”

“You truly cannot judge people based on what you see,” says fellow student Izzy Posein. “Being able to actually talk to people who suffer with addiction or are living unsheltered helped me to understand that people end up in these situations for a variety of reasons, and often for reasons beyond their control. It can be so easy to look at someone and judge them, but you have to remember they are still a person who deserves to be treated with the same respect and kindness as anyone else.”

For Katie Bell, one experience stood out as a time when she had to put into practice what she’d learned in the classroom.

“At the end of the semester, I had an experience where I actually had to administer naloxone to an individual who had stopped breathing due to drug toxicity,” says Bell. “The individual turned out to be OK, which I am very grateful for.”

Their interactions with people during the course also gave them more understanding of broader societal issues. When asked what they wish the general public knew about those who are unhoused or living with addictions, the students advocate for greater empathy.

“I wish the public could see that, with substance use as prevalent as it is, they are already likely to have been affected by it through close friends, family, coworkers or others,” says Lindsay. “We as a community need to stop stigmatizing substance use and start collaborating with existing organizations and finding funding to fill the gaps. People are living in subhuman conditions and dying at unprecedented levels from the drug toxicity crisis, both of which are totally preventable. Substance use and houselessness are social issues that need social solutions, not policeable actions and incarcerations.”

Posein adds “I wish people would understand that addiction is a disease and that it is not as easy as saying "just quit." I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about harm reduction. A lot of people see harm reduction as enabling, which is not the case. Harm reduction is literally just reducing harm, which can include giving people warm meal or clean clothes.”

Bell says the course allowed her to meet many people and understand that many factors contribute to substance use or being unhoused and a lack of resources is one of them.

“These are real people, and they deserve to be treated as such,” says Bell. “I have met and talked with many individuals who are unhoused, use substances, or both, and my experiences have all been very positive.”

Faculty of Health Sciences nursing students in other classes were also involved in the community. Trenna Devoy's class organized a health fair for students at St. Patrick’s Fine Arts Elementary School. Students in Mary Nugent’s community health nursing course held a fair to connect seniors to available resources, as well as an information session on dementia at Nord-Bridge Seniors Centre.