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Washing the feet of the homeless: The service project that changed me

Keegan, Richard, DNP, RN, FNP-BC

doi: 10.1097/01.CCN.0000534930.08796.df
Department: Pearls

Washing the feet of the homeless

Richard Keegan is an assistant professor at the California State University, Sacramento (Calif.), School of Nursing.

The author has disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.

This article is adapted from Keegan R. Washing the feet of the homeless: the service project that changed me. Nursing. 2017;47(6):46-48.

When I was an ED nurse, I had plenty of experience caring for the homeless. Whenever I worked with homeless individuals in the ED, I wondered why anyone would choose a homeless lifestyle. Although I did not realize it at the time, my perspective would be forever changed by the hours I would later spend volunteering at a clinic for the homeless to complete a service learning project required by my graduate school program.

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Opening up about homelessness

A classmate in my graduate nursing program told me about a local homeless sanctuary that provided a foot clinic on the third Tuesday of each month. The sanctuary managers agreed to let me participate in the foot clinic to complete my volunteer assignment. The foot clinic is held outside on the large porch of a multiuse trailer. Chairs are lined up on the porch as homeless visitors sign up for the foot clinic. Care is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

My first guest seemed standoffish and guarded, merely grunting in response to my greeting. After I tested the water temperature in my basin, he placed his feet in the solution to soak. A few minutes later, as I washed his feet with a soft clean brush, I could see the stress melting away from his face. When I asked him how it felt, he replied, “Weird, but good! My feet always hurt from walking and wearing crummy shoes.” This was no surprise. His feet were covered in calluses, especially on the sides of the great toes and the heels. I gently removed dead skin with a pumice stone.

While I inspected his feet for fissures and cracks, he revealed he had a history of hypertension and diabetes. When I asked him where he got his medical care, he replied, “The Primary Clinic.” I knew that this major health clinic for the medically indigent was at least 5 miles away from the sanctuary. He said he would occasionally sneak onto public transportation and get off at the stop nearest the clinic. He commented that he had trouble managing his diet because choices in the sanctuary were limited mainly to high-starch foods.

As I dried his feet, he sighed and began to talk about his life. The cascade of homelessness began with the loss of his job and health insurance; then he lost his home because he could not pay his rent. Welcomes started to wear thin for couch surfing, so he began sleeping on the street or in a homeless shelter if a bed was available.

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A new perspective

Washing feet that day changed my thinking in many ways. The sheer number of homeless men and women at the sanctuary was staggering, yet I knew that thousands more in the community were without shelter and had no access to healthcare services. The free foot clinic provided an excellent opportunity to not only assess homeless individuals' feet but also to interact with them on a personal level.

The other volunteers and I washed 25 visitors' feet that day. Caring for the homeless in a compassionate manner and listening to their stories was richly rewarding. Spending time with people living such difficult lives was humbling.

I continue to volunteer my services at an onsite clinic for homeless individuals who have received shelter through a local nonprofit agency. I assist with their medical needs and get them into our healthcare network if they choose a health plan that we are a part of.

I encourage anyone who would like to help the homeless to seek out a local homeless shelter and ask what volunteer services it needs. This richly rewarding experience could lead you to a different aspect of nursing that you may not have previously considered.

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