Selkirk College Nursing Program fourth-year students Amanda Sigurdson (left) and Jordan Sherstobitoff (right) were part of a research team that surveyed homeless populations in Nelson, Castlegar and Trail. The pair are seen here at the Nelson Civic Centre outdoor homeless camp this past summer. Photo: Submitted

Selkirk College Nursing Program fourth-year students Amanda Sigurdson (left) and Jordan Sherstobitoff (right) were part of a research team that surveyed homeless populations in Nelson, Castlegar and Trail. The pair are seen here at the Nelson Civic Centre outdoor homeless camp this past summer. Photo: Submitted

Selkirk College project studies homelessness during pandemic

Three students talked to more than 70 homeless people in the summer

Submitted by Selkirk College

Tasked with gathering the voices of the voiceless, students in the Selkirk College Nursing Program are playing a vital role in a research project exploring rural homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funded by the federal government’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s College and Community Innovation Program, and in partnership with social service agencies across the West Kootenay, the team at Selkirk College’s Applied Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC) recently released a report on how the pandemic is affecting the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness. In late-summer, a small team of Nursing Program students conducted more than 70 interviews with people experiencing homelessness in Nelson, Castlegar and Trail to bring first-person experience to the study.

“The homeless population has great ideas and these people are the experts in what is happening,” says fourth-year Nursing Program student Jordan Sherstobitoff. “We need to talk to them to see what kinds of services they need during a pandemic. There are gaps in services in our communities, which is a huge problem. COVID really brought out the inequalities and where we need extra supports.”

The Rural Homelessness and COVID-19 project is one of several research projects currently being conducted at Selkirk College that support regional resilience and community development. The project dives deep into issues of rural homelessness during COVID-19 and mobilizes Selkirk College assets — including research capacity, student talent and faculty expertise — to help fill a community need. The project also provides valuable work-integrated learning experiences for students. During August and September, Sherstobitoff joined classmates Amanda Sigurdson and Bethany Grutter in outreach work well suited to their educational background, training and future goals.

With leadership from Nursing Program faculty, regional service providers and the team at ARIC, the three students made connections with people struggling with widening service gaps caused by the pandemic.

“The research that the students took part in helped generate valuable information about rural social service adaptions,” says Ryall Giuliano, the project’s community liaison. “The survey results will help the college and regional service providers formulate strategies to better support vulnerable populations in the months to come.”

Gathering evidence from the front lines

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down British Columbia in mid-March, Sigurdson was in the middle of her third-year practicum placement with the Selkirk College street nursing initiative in Nelson. The long-running initiative delivers outreach to marginalized clients by providing health advocacy and referrals, harm reduction resources, first aid and hygiene, and the distribution of wellness supplies.

A graduate of Stanley Humphries Secondary School in Castlegar, Sigurdson entered the Nursing Program leaning towards the mental health side of the profession. Working with vulnerable populations on the streets of Nelson provided Sigurdson the opportunity to focus on her primary interest.

“It’s meeting them where they are at, you need to be coming with a non-judgemental approach,” Sigurdson says. “I found that in the beginning, people were apprehensive so it needed to be consistent. It came to a point where you never want to miss a shift because they rely on the concept that we are always going to be there for them.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, Selkirk College researchers and faculty recognized the capacity that the street nursing initiative could add to local service providers’ COVID-19 response. Partners on the rural homelessness project expressed a need for more street-level support and a desire to establish a data-based understanding of pandemic impacts.

Sigurdson and fellow street nursing participants Sherstobitoff and Grutter were a perfect fit for the role. The paid internships required the students to run participants through a 15-minute survey focused on life during COVID-19 while also continuing to deliver outreach services. Survey results will inform the next stages of the broader Rural Homelessness and COVID-19 project, which continues until mid-2021.

Working in the streets and encampments of Nelson, Trail and Castlegar, the student nurses had more conversations with people experiencing homelessness in a day than most people have in a lifetime.

“Many of these individuals were comfortable with us because we had already built relationships with them. Trust is a big thing with this population,” says Sherstobitoff, who also graduated high school in Stanley Humphries Secondary in Castlegar. “Every person experiencing homelessness is like every other person in society, some people like to talk about their situation and some people don’t. And everyone has a different life experience that has brought them to where they are currently.”

Helping foster change on a broader scale

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts segments of the population most at risk. The research team’s work is aimed at improving the well-being of West Kootenay residents experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic by addressing emergent service gaps and reducing related risks to health. Survey results are already being shared with service providers.

“It’s important to see the process that goes into the bigger picture,” says Sigurdson. “Initially we were just on the street doing outreach, then we get involved in this research project. It takes a lot of work to write grants and put the information together that even gets us to the stage of this particular project. I will now be curious to see where this information goes so that we can create some positive opportunities out of this research.”

As she edges closer to graduating from the four-year Bachelor of Nursing Program, Sherstobitoff has found her passion in the career she has chosen. Along with Grutter, the pair are currently involved in their fourth-year leadership project where they are bringing the street nurse program to Castlegar.

Building off the knowledge she has acquired through the summer survey internship and the continued education she is acquiring, the 23 year old is more committed than ever to work in the field of mental health.

“Many of these individuals don’t really care about the pandemic anymore, they have way bigger things to worry about than dying from COVID,” she says. “They are worried about dying from the opioid crisis, they are worried about freezing to death, they are worried about not getting their next meal … that’s what is on the mind of people living with homelessness.”

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