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Working with the homeless in Calgary’s downtown eastside is changing the perceptions of nursing students.

May 2015

Second-year nursing students are making a difference on Calgary’s downtown eastside, thanks in large part to alumna Amanda (Mandy) Loates, BN’10, and her initiative Safe In My Backyard. This school term, the students worked on the creation of a Facebook page and Instagram account in addition to an informational handout for East Village condominium residents focused on getting them to know their neighbours.

Loates, a registered nurse (community mental health) with Alberta Health Services, started Safe In My Backyard (SIMBY) after a distressing experience led her to see that community attitudes can hinder and even restrict work done by agencies that support stigmatized groups.

“I saw the need to increase some Calgarians’ understanding of stigmatized members of our community and to shift public views from NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) so everyone can feel safe,” says Loates. “Community members may have valid fears or worries that can be addressed with more information and understanding of the services already available in our community and education on how best to direct their concerns.”

Enter nursing instructor Melanie Lind-Kosten who, after connecting with Loates in June 2013, saw the potential for nursing students to help while aiding their learning about community health and vulnerable populations. “A bias exists between the homed and homeless,” she says, “and we need to find ways to bridge that gap.”

Earlier groups of students created a website and a powerful video, We Are All Human. “When a new term starts, I don’t tell the students what the previous group did: they have eight fantastic brains and eight different perspectives,” explains Lind-Kosten. “When they know what they would like to do with their project, then we talk about the work in the previous terms and we marry the ideas; it has been amazing how they all fit together.”

According to the students, working with the homeless population changed each one of them — their values, assumptions, and beliefs regarding homelessness. “No one chooses to become homeless,” says group member Brianna Rizzuti. “It is interplay between societal norms and expectations that create these inequalities.” Their experience helped them come to the realization there is a misconception about the homeless, where society is lacking education and information surrounding why people become homeless and what programs are available to help them.

“We hope that through the creation of our social media (Facebook: SIMBY-YYC, Instagram: @safeinmybackyard), we can reach as many people as possible and raise awareness that homelessness is not a crime, and that we are all humans, deserving to be treated equally and accepted in the society in which we live," Rizutti continues. The students will also be raising awareness by running in the Scotiabank Calgary Half Marathon as a team on May 31.

“This current group of students is passionate about the SIMBY project,” Lind-Kosten says. “They have gone over and above their responsibility to the faculty and our educational expectations in partnering with their community.”

 

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