Oct. 21, 2022

Nursing student behind Calgary's first pop-up care village to help vulnerable Calgarians

Bill Zheng says initiative helps bridge understanding between existing community and unhoused neighbours
Bill Zheng interviewed by Global News at Sept. 27 Pop Up Care Village.
Bill Zheng interviewed by Global News at Sept. 27 Pop Up Care Village. Albert Woo

In the summer of Grade 11, Bill Zheng and some high school friends were so impressed by the LavaMaeˣ Pop-Up Care Villages (PUCVs) in the San Francisco Bay Area — designed to bring services like showers, health care, clothing and haircuts to the unhoused — and how accessible they were, they planned to launch one of their own in Calgary.

Given that they were not a non-profit organization and were not connected to any homeless-serving agencies, the idea was shelved. But Zheng, now a first-year UCalgary Nursing student, never lost sight of launching a PUCV and last month, he finally saw it come to fruition. 

I joined BeTheChangeYYC and one of my team leads, Kristen Baranieski, brought up the idea of this pop-up care village, and that immediately excited me,Zheng recalls, adding that he and Hanna Woodward, a fourth-year UCalgary Social Work student, united as a team of two to make it happen this summer. 

It was a tremendous amount of work: Hanna and I spent hundreds of hours consulting with LavaMaeˣ, communicating with city administration, Alberta Health Services public health inspectors and procuring partners for the event. 

When the festival finally came together at Olympic Plaza (permit issues pushed it to Sept. 27), more than 600 people attended including the homeless guests and the community.

“The event ultimately, is intended to uphold human dignity while bridging the communication and understanding between the existing community and the unhoused neighbors,” says Zheng. “We were able to talk to many guests about that goal.”  

Pop Up Care Villages in September 2022.

Pop Up Care Villages in September 2022.

Albert Woo

This is but one endeavour for this enterprising student, who is also a musician, photographer/filmographer and a student pilot halfway to obtaining his private pilot licence. Zheng has also volunteered and worked with people experiencing addiction and mental health issues, which contributed to his choice of nursing for a career.

“I have worked alongside many nurses from agencies such as the Drop-In Centre (when responding to drug poisonings) as an emergency shelter staff, Safeworks (Calgary's harm reduction division) and CUPS (through their liver clinic) as a harm reduction outreach worker. 

“For the longest time, I envisioned myself not as a nurse, but as an airline transport pilot or an air traffic controller; it's crazy how the direction of life can change so suddenly,” Zheng says, highlighting a “very personal and intimate reason” for applying to UCalgary Nursing.

“I was my mother's primary care giver for the past one and a half years as she battled a terminal illness. Through my role as her primary decision agent, I've interacted with the health-care system numerous times, and in emerge, triage nurses are the first health-care professional with whom we interact.”

Because of this, says Zheng, he has an interest in palliative care and, in particular, providing equitable access to palliative and end-of-life care to anyone experiencing systemic vulnerabilities such as homelessness.

I am very interested in serving the vulnerable population and in street medicine/nursing.

Despite beginning a busy university term, Zheng is already working on the 2023 PUCV as well as a completely new project for a mobile hygiene and shower unit because he saw the difference they can make.

“One guest, who refused to be touched by anyone due to past traumatic experiences, communicated that to one of the registered massage therapists at this year’s event and eventually received a dignifying massage. The guest was so grateful and that was really heartwarming, but also heartbreaking at the same time.”  

That story and many more are why Zheng and BeTheChangeYYC are rushing now to get applications for grants and The City’s permit subsidiary program ready to submit.

“We are always looking for passionate volunteers who want to help out,” says Zheng. “You don't need to have previous experience: we only need an individual to be passionate and compassionate, like nursing students!” 

While the roles for volunteers have yet to be determined, Zheng encourages those interested in learning more to email him directly. You can also learn more about C-PUCV via the website.