A Helping Home: From Nurse to Homelessness Advocate

by Huda Rabah, RN
Published March 4, 2024; © 2024 Huda Rabah

Dr. Abe Oudshoorn

As a young, bright-eyed nurse, Abram “Abe” Oudshoorn envisioned helping his community with the skills he gained as a new healthcare professional. His energy to help others was palpable, and he felt confident in the difference he could make.

He was drawn to working with the most vulnerable populations in Canada. He focused his career on working on the ground with the London InterCommunity Health Centre to address homelessness, women’s health, and refugee health. By working daily with the homeless population, he gained a deeper understanding of the challenges they face.

Despite his efforts, Mr. Oudshoorn realized his patients were not getting better. In fact, many were doing worse, and some were dying. He was concerned his efforts were not as helpful as he envisioned. When your heart is full of compassion, it becomes challenging to turn a blind eye, especially when deaths in the homeless population are on the rise. These are the patients he met, spoke to and cared for. He knew something had to change, things that were beyond his control as a staff nurse.

A Change in Direction

Mr. Oudshoorn realized that change is more likely to come from policy creation and advocacy that healthcare professionals provide on behalf of their patients. To gain more understanding and credibility, he attended graduate school and achieved his master’s in nursing, then continued to complete a PhD in nursing with a focus on community-based care.

Mr. Oudshoorn speaking at a nursing conference.

To conduct research, Mr. Oudshoorn revisited the harsh environments and experience his patients face: food insecurity and starvation, life-threatening diseases, violence, societal stigmas, and even death. Despite this, he structured his research to demonstrate the resilience and strength of the people he serves. This resilience inspires his research.

In recognition of his work, he received the Western University Humanitarian Award in 2016. To date, he has many publications posted on international sites that capture how dedicated he is to this cause. The results of his work are evident in the policies implemented based on his research.

As the COVID pandemic broke out, Mr. Oudshoorn and his team focused their research on the homeless population, who were particularly vulnerable during that time. He found that the homeless were more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 due to unfit living conditions in crowded shelters and inadequate, unhygienic housing options. Recognizing this vulnerability, his goal was to highlight these concerns and provide detailed recommendations for government officials. He also urged them to “ensure that both health and housing are better protected and obtained during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Mr. Oudshoorn later received the ‘Outstanding Paper Award’ from Emerald Publishing for his dedicated work on the marginalized communities affected during the global trials of the pandemic.

Building Teams, Going Global

Large scale change requires great teamwork, so Mr. Oudshoorn has worked with organizations such as the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion and Lawson Health Research Institute as an associate scientist, and even as a researcher for the Department of Psychiatry, Western University, in Ontario. With these strong partnerships, he can amplify his work by using resources and knowledge from experts in many areas. Mr. Oudshoorn strongly believes in the “sharing of knowledge” from multiple sources to be the secret ingredient to creating research that is truly meaningful.

As his work evolved, he also researched homelessness in areas of the world that lack historical examination of their marginalized communities. Understanding that housing is a fundamental human right, he discussed how homelessness experienced by families, the elderly, and women in the Middle East and North Africa regions were underrepresented or non-existent. He concluded that without understanding homelessness in all its aspects and populations, the homeless issue will likely never be solved. Through his analysis, he hopes to encourage leaders to make change on a global scale.

Mr. Oudshoorn with the “Youth Peers in Kenya” team.

Recently, his focus has been on fostering global partnerships by implementing projects that can also improve quality of life for people outside of Canada. Through his role as associate professor and researcher at Western University, his project “Youth peers in Kenya,” focuses on helping homeless youth in Kenya overcome addiction and find housing by assigning a mentor to those who seek help. Mr. Oudshoorn wants to eradicate the preconception that the best knowledge comes from the “Western world.” In fact, learning from the Kenyan population has been so successful that his team is currently trying to implement the same project in Canadian cities like Toronto, London, and Vancouver.

Finding Solutions

When asked about the challenges of his role, Mr. Oudshoorn describes one of his major challenges as “finding strategies that are practical yet humane.” He views humaneness as a necessity when working with any population. His dedication also requires bravery as he frequently must fight for his patient’s rights when communicating with government officials and the policy makers who provide the funds to save patient lives.

His advocacy for harm reduction strategies urged support for the controversial, yet necessary, supervised drug-injection sites across Ontario. In an interview with Western News, Mr. Oudshoorn says “we know with addiction, people aren’t just going to get clean today. It’s a journey.” Through working with the populations that experienced addiction, he understood that supervised drug injection sites can help avoid risks with drug use such as infection, overdose, and exposed contaminated needles. He also hopes that these injection sites will provide a designated area where those in the community can seek liberation from addiction through resources and support.

“Finding strategies that are practical yet humane.”

— Abe Oudshoorn

Although his journey was a long and relentless pursuit, he now inspires other young nurses to pursue social justice and global health as a professor at Western University. Beyond this role, Mr. Oudshoorn has expanded his goal of helping the homeless population to the world. By sharing information and experiences, he uses his research to evolve the way we work together to improve human rights.

When asked what advice he wants to give readers, Mr. Oudshoorn encouraged “treating people with unconditional positive regard by understanding context, through dignity and compassion.” Emphasizing that the right to a home, a place of safety and security, is a universal human right, Mr. Oudshoorn’s determination proves that when you look at people with compassion, as real humans despite their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or social status, you can demand change for the better.

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About Angels in Medicine

Angels in Medicine is a volunteer site dedicated to the humanitarians, heroes, angels, and bodhisattvas of medicine. The site features physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other healthcare workers and volunteers who reach people without the resources or opportunities for quality care, such as teens, the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly, or those living in poor or war-torn regions. Read their stories at www.medangel.org.

Interested in writing for Angels in Medicine? Know about an Angel we should interview? Drop me a note at harry@medangel.org.

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