The Empathy Project: Experiencing homelessness to better understand it

Faculty of Medicine

By Camille Perreault

Affaires francophones | Francophone Affairs, Faculté de médecine | Faculty of Medicine

A student and facilitator participate in an Empathy Project workshop session
Students waiting in line outside classrooms. Groups chatting in the atrium. Lively exchanges and gatherings. What looked like any other day at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine wasn’t really what it seemed.

As part of an exercise led by the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (the Alliance) in partnership with the Office of Social Accountability and Francophone Affairs, first-year medical students had the chance to experience a situation that is unfortunately lived by many and understood by few. 

They were participating in the Empathy Project, an immersive learning experience offering a unique opportunity to step into the shoes of those facing poverty. The program is designed to offer firsthand insight into the challenges people encounter while striving to meet their basic needs. Students engaged in roleplay simulating a “day-in-the-life” of an individual seeking housing, employment, legal aid, food and income support. Volunteer facilitators included Alliance team members, people with lived experience, individuals from the wider Ottawa community and members of the Faculty of Medicine. They played a variety of roles as well, interacting with students as they attempted to navigate the complex process.

Two years ago, the Alliance acquired the rights to use this program and modernized the scenarios to highlight all the perceived constraints in obtaining legal aid, medical and social services, support from landlord and tenant organizations, and so much more. Obtaining services in the participant’s language adds a further level of complexity to the exercise. Indeed, active offer may not be practiced, which can cause major problems for already vulnerable people.

Drawing on her years of experience, Alliance director Kaite Burkholder Harris confirms that the only way to fully understand homelessness is to experience it, even if it’s for just a few hours. Through real-life stories, medical students are confronted with the difficulties of dealing with different systems. There’s no escaping the reality of the housing crisis. Homelessness should not be seen as a personal failure, but as the failure of an inadequate system of which health care is one component. 

University of Ottawa students participate in the Empathy Project
University of Ottawa students participate in the Empathy Project.

It was in this context that Dr. Claire Kendall, Associate Dean of Social Accountability at the Faculty of Medicine, decided to deploy this activity. 

“We know that our students will provide better care for their patients if they fully understand the background to the consultation, and there’s no better way to understand the context of people in difficulty than through this exercise,” said Dr. Kendall. 

This event, which can easily be adapted to English or French, will also help forge professional connections and build interprofessional relationships, insofar as it’s possible to integrate several faculties at the same time. We hope that the spirit of community that reigns here will propel this initiative beyond the Faculty of Medicine.

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