Nursing students learn sympathy for others through Homes for the Homeless event

December 20, 2016

Most of the 31 School of Nursing students were wary of participating in the annual Homes for the Homeless event in September. 

This activity, which requires them to spend a Friday night sleeping in a cardboard box outside Anderson’s Civic Center, fulfills some clinical hours for their Community Health class. Each student raises $25 to support this fundraiser for Family Promise, a local organization that helps homeless families get re-established. And during the evening—before bedding down into their boxes—they play a “Game of Life” to experience the difficulties the homeless encounter.

Ask any of these nursing students, and they’ll tell you that this was one of the most frustrating, most uncomfortable—and most eye-opening—experiences of their lives.

Frustration boiled over during the Game of Life, in which students—who were assigned different roles in family units—rotated through stations as a simulation of the efforts that the homeless must make to feed and shelter their families. Students had to somehow gather funds to get transportation between stations. They had to assemble needed documents. And they rolled dice as a symbol of the role that luck plays in whether a facility will still have space available or how much assistance they receive.

This game helped senior nursing student Matthew Murray realize “how much of a hassle it is to be homeless and not have the important documents you need. If you had children, you had to get them registered for school. But you needed immunizations for school, and you couldn’t prove that without a Social Security card, and you couldn’t get that without a driver’s license. It’s hard to restart your life and get back on your feet once you’re homeless.”

Another student, when asked to reflect on the experience in an essay, wrote, “Much like the little boy I was assigned to ‘play,’ I was confused and hurt when we got rejected . . . for not having the right identification and frustrated by the games of chance that seemed to be going on. My family needed food and shelter, but somehow we didn’t qualify.”

Following this game, students used the “funds” they’d been able to secure to purchase a simple, shelter-style meal of rice and beans. Then they spent an uncomfortable night in whatever kind of edifice they’d been able to erect out of cardboard. One student wrote, “Being exposed to the elements made me feel extremely vulnerable.” 

For Cynthia Cross, the nursing professor who spearheads this activity and spends the night right along with the students, the hours after lights out are deeply spiritual.

“That’s my private time alone with God,” Cross said. “It will humble you and bring you to a sense of empathy with everyone.”

As they look back on the experience, students, too, feel a profound impact that they will carry over into their nursing careers. Cross believes it will humble them, that it will help them view all patients as individuals and push them to find out whether their patients have a support system. As one student wrote, “I now look differently at the man I pass on the way to school every morning, and the "shopping cart man" on Clemson Boulevard. It makes me want to hear their stories. Once you’re interested in a person’s story, it leaves the door open for genuinely sympathizing and caring for them.”