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Shelters Get COVID Vaccines; Some Homeless Hard To Reach

Man searches for homeless people
Ashley Binkowski
PATH Crisis Center has been doing street outreach to encourage those who are homeless to get the COVID vaccine.

McLean County has started to vaccinate its homeless population against COVID-19.Shelter managers hope the vaccines will protect a vulnerable population, but they say it can be a challenge to get them to take the vaccine. And sometimes it's a challenge to find them.

Home Sweet Home Ministries
Credit Facebook/Home Sweet Home Ministries
Home Sweet Home Ministries

Matt Burgess is CEO of Home Sweet Home Ministries. The ministry runs a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Bloomington. When the state opened up COVID vaccinations to congregant settings under Phase 1B, Burgess was eager to get those shots into the arms of residents and staff. But like a lot of people, many who stay, work or volunteer at the shelter struggled to get a vaccine appointment through the McLean County Health Department (MCHD).

“Unfortunately, those clinics have not been very accessible for the folks that we serve in the shelter,” Burgess said. “That was an ongoing need that we were trying to get solved.”

Burgess said he was persistent. He called the health department and asked for help. The county connected him with Chestnut Health Systems. The Bloomington-based nonprofit has worked with the county to host vaccination clinics at schools and social service organizations.

Shuttle bus and van parked
Credit Chestnut Health Systems
Chestnut Health Systems has two mobile health units that it can take to COVID vaccination clinics.

Chestnut hosted vaccination clinics last week at Home Sweet Home Ministries and the Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter in Bloomington.

Joan Hartman, vice president of strategy and public policy for Chestnut, said the homeless population needs the vaccine more than most. She said people who stay in homeless shelters can't easily isolate and many have other health problems.

“A lot of them also have co-occurring medical conditions that because of the nature of their living situation and their living environments have not had the opportunity to get the kind of ongoing medical care that they need,” Hartman said.

Hartman said Chestnut gets about 100 vaccine doses each week from the county.

But not everyone who can get a COVID vaccine wants one. Hesitancy seems especially common among the homeless population. During a recent clinic at Safe Harbor in Bloomington, less than half of the people staying at the shelter agreed to get the vaccine.

JoAnna, social services director for the Salvation Army, said some residents said they've had bad experiences with the health care system.

Salvation Army Safe Harbor entrance
Credit Daniel Robinson
Salvation Army Safe Harbor

“We tried to be mindful of that. That was one of the reasons why we were able to get an on-site clinic,” Callahan said. "It would reduce that barrier of feeling discomfort going into a medical provider’s office.”

The challenge of getting COVID vaccines into arms is even greater among the homeless population you can't find. Shelters don't have room for everyone who needs a bed. The pandemic has limited capacity. Some people are living on the streets.

Erik Zdansky is program manager of homeless services for the PATH Crisis Center in Bloomington. Zdansky's staff does street outreach. They comb the streets of Bloomington-Normal and offer help to those who don't have a roof over their head. They offer things like job training, transportation and therapy. Now they are encouraging those living on the street to get the COVID vaccine. PATH offers to take them to the Chestnut Family Health Center in west Bloomington. PATH also may hold its own vaccination clinic.

Zdansky said he hasn't had much success getting people signed up to get the vaccine. He said many who are homeless suffer from mental illness, they don't have the medications they need or they don't trust the health care system.

Zdansky said some who are homeless are just hard to find. He said PATH gives some clients a cell phone to try to stay in contact with them.

“It’s difficult to keep track of everything if you are sleeping outside,” he said. “We are having some challenges for our hard-to-reach population that are sleeping outside. Arguably, they are the people we are trying to get vaccinated the most.”

Zdansky said education might help combat a lack of trust, but more than that he said it takes compassion and understanding, even if it takes multiple visits to build that relationship.

“They don’t have to be about how to ‘fix your life,’ they can be really simple conversational things to let them know we are available for them,” Zdansky said.

Zdansky said there are usually about 15 to 30 unsheltered people in McLean County at a given time. He suspects the number is lower now because of the eviction moratorium and other measures put in place since the pandemic began.

Zdansky said those who are living on the street may be less likely to get or spread COVID because many of them live in isolation. But that changes when they walk into a shelter. He said that's how Safe Harbor got a COVID outbreak this winter.

Matt Burgess at Home Sweet Home said the ministry is fortunate none of its clients have contracted the coronavirus in the past year and the arrival of COVID vaccines gives him confidence that it can limit the spread of this deadly disease.

“We’re feeling very good now,” Burgess said. “Two months ago, before we were able to get the vaccine it was touch and go.”

Burgess said for now all the COVID protocols remain in place, including masking, social distancing and sanitizing. He said it's still too early to say when things will return to normal.

Home Sweet Home Ministries recently received a donated passenger van from State Farm. The ministry plans to use it to take clients to Chestnut Family Health Center to get vaccinated.

Managers at Home Sweet Home and Safe Harbor said more than half of staff and volunteers have received the COVID vaccine.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.