Nursing students lend a hand at homeless encampments

Person wearing gloves and a mask providing care to another person.

Photo by Mike Kinney of the Richmond Standard

SF State students team up with Bay Area nonprofit to provide nursing care, basic needs support

When San Francisco State University Clinical Instructor of Nursing Sandra Tramiel passed by homeless encampments in the East Bay a few years ago, she felt moved. “That experience changed my perspective on privilege,” she said. “Do you keep it to yourself or do you use it to help other people?”

Tramiel committed to helping others by providing nursing care at the encampments. At the same time, she saw a unique opportunity: bringing her students along to create an invaluable learning experience.

In recent years, Tramiel has been instrumental in facilitating a partnership between the San Francisco State School of Nursing and Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP), a Bay Area nonprofit that provides outreach services to disadvantaged communities. Through the partnership, SF State students under the supervision of Tramiel team up with GRIP outreach workers to provide nursing care and basic needs support at encampments in Richmond. 

“The program allows students to be self-thinkers and to utilize their nursing skills in creative ways,” Tramiel said. “They don’t have all the equipment you would find at a hospital to make health assessments. Students have to really put themselves in people’s shoes to figure out how to provide the best care.”

The program is part of the NURS 531 “Community Health and Global Perspectives Practicum” course. While adhering to COVID-19 safety precautions, the students provide many resources: blood pressure tests, respiratory and temperature checks, flu shots, masks and more. In addition, the students share health education, including COVID-19 guidance. They can also assess if a person is eligible for emergency housing at a local hotel. 

Although the partnership was established last year before COVID-19 swept the globe, Tramiel says the pandemic has made it more important. “I think because many of the residents who live in encampments feel a type of security, they tend to not go outside their community and get the care they need,” she said. “That’s concerning because they may not be getting important information about COVID-19. The students and GRIP help close that gap.” 

Tramiel also says the program helps students look past some of the stigmas associated with the homeless community. In turn, it deepens students’ understanding about this population so that they can better serve them, she added. One of the students, Jennifer Dilley, agrees.

Dilley is a graduating senior at SF State who helped at the encampments this semester. Through this experience, she learned how it’s important to understand a patient’s story to make informed health assessments. Although she applied this approach at the encampments, she can see it being valuable in a medical facility, as well.

“Nurses can expect to take care of all types of patients in all kinds of settings,” Dilley said. “Whether it’s inside or outside a hospital, we need to better understand people and their stories.”

Like Tramiel, Dilley also learned an important lesson about privilege. “This experience made me recognize the privilege I have and how grateful I am,” Dilley said. “But it also pushed me to use what I have to help people who are struggling and need somebody to be a voice for them.”