Throughout the last semester of Nursing School, the seniors have either one of two clinicals – Community Health or Role Transition (i.e., practicum/preceptorship). After half of the semester is completed, the students switch from one to the other. For the first half of this year, I’ve been in my Community Health Clinical at the Gateway Center in downtown Atlanta. This facility serves homeless men, women, and children that have come to the Atlanta area for a variety of different reasons.
The Gateway facility is able to provide temporary shelter to these clients, but it places a special emphasis on gaining work and education. Many of the clients are enrolled in a variety of educational or treatment programs in an attempt to restore their lives and regain their independence. The initial intake area is a large, open room with a variety of clientele – all different ages, races, genders, and ethnicities. One of the first things I learned very quickly in this clinical rotation is that there is no stereotypical “face of homelessness.” Many people have preconceived notions about what a homeless man or woman looks like. However, just from working in this Center for only a few weeks, it is quite clear to me that this is not the case at all. Many of the clients we work with were once in very stable positions, but due to some unforeseen event, they have come to find themselves homeless. In fact, one of the staff members of Gateway was even a former client of the facility. Working with this population makes it quite obvious that all of us, no matter what our situation or background, are susceptible to homelessness.
During our clinical shifts at Gateway, we participate in a variety of different activities, such as educational sessions, art therapy, and health fairs. Some of the topics that the clients are most interested in include hypertension, diabetes, stress management, and heart health. We usually get a pretty good turn-out at each event, with a record set for our group of 39 participants in last week’s health fair on Heart Health (conducted by students Chelsea Pharr and Marcus Whitlow). The patients are always especially interested in finding out what their blood pressure is, ways to reduce these numbers, and information on healthy diets. I’ve been so impressed by how interactive and receptive the majority of them are with all of the students; they’re genuinely interested in hearing what health advice we can provide, and ways to improve their situations.
The nursing students at Gateway act in many different roles during the clinicals – student nurse (of course!), educator, counselor, and listener. I’ve found that the latter role, listener, is often one that the clients appreciate most. As our clinical instructors, Prof. Monica Donohue and Jordan Simcox, have informed us – many of these men and women are never even routinely called by their own name when living on the streets. So many of us get caught up in all of the busy work we have to do each day with school, friends, and family, and while this work is difficult and time-consuming, it’s important to think of populations that are quite worse off than us. Imagine living on the street and having most people avert their eyes whenever they walk past you, as if to ward off any type of conversation or pretend you aren’t even there. When a student, or anyone, sits down with any of these men or women and takes the time to talk to them, and especially listen, it truly seems to improve their outlook. Once again, the “art of listening,” that is often highlighted as a gift of nurses, serves to provide a connection with these clients that may have been missing in their lives for quite some time.