Beth Pelton, a veteran nurse in the 42nd year of her career, looks back on how she became a street nurse, back when it was less the sort of thing you did for money than a volunteer activity.
Next to her in their clinic in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood is Jessica Hales, just two years in, who says the great reward of the job is their clients, who manage to live with and overcome obstacles — poverty, addiction, mental health issues — in a frequently pitiless environment in ways that still amaze both women.
“It's nice to see the resilience of people in the community,” Hales said. “It’s not like when you're in a hospital and you only see people for a brief time.”
Across the country in Edmonton, Kelly Rocco echoes Hale’s feelings. “When you work in the hospital you often deal with people at one set point and then you don't ever see them again. The good thing about this job is you get to know people, their friends, their family, their life … you're kind of accepted into that community.”
Rocco works in Edmonton’s Boyle MacCauley neighbourhood, where she divides her time between home base, an STD clinic, and stops around the area, at drop-in centres and an alternative high school, dispensing over-the-counter medication as well as needles, condoms and crack pipes. Working with health representatives, many from the native community, she works with a partner, tracking down people who’ve tested positive for diseases and doing the outreach work she says is a huge part of their job.
The rewards of the profession far outweigh the risks, she says, most of which are overrated.
“In the eight years I've been doing this I can count on my hand the number of times I felt unsafe.”
Pelton and Hales say the job has allowed them to practice nursing with a depth and intensity they didn’t expect. “It's an opportunity for nurses to really learn about client-centred care,” says Pelton. “We learn very quickly in this work that the client is the expert in their own life.”