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Vaccinating nation’s homeless for COVID-19 presents unique set of challenges

Posted at 10:28 AM, Feb 16, 2021

BOSTON, Mass. — On any given winter day on any other year in this country, being homeless is difficult enough. But in the middle of a pandemic, this has been a winter like none for those, with no place to call home.

And the effort to inoculate the more than 500,000 people in this country who are homeless is proving to be difficult.

Across the country, the burden of vaccinating the homeless is falling on nonprofits and shelters. Health officials say it's critical those who are homeless get the shot, because so many who live on the streets often survive in tightknit groups, giving the virus a perfect opportunity to spread.

"They are a tight community. Social distancing is not easy. They rely on each other. It’s critical we get as many as we can to get them vaccinated, so that begins to spread out as a network," said Larry Mayes with Catholic Charities of Boston.

On a recent Thursday morning, Mayes' group was working to distribute 30 doses of the vaccine they had received from the State of Massachusetts. It’s a seemingly small number, but a monumentally large step forward in ending the pandemic.

However, the process of vaccinating those who are homeless is not without challenges. Simply letting the homeless know about vaccination sites is difficult. Even more challenging is making sure they come back to get their second shot.

"The more people who get vaccinated from all walks of life, whether they’re homeless or not, that it’s the thing to do, it helps all of us as a whole," Mayes said.

On any given night in this country, more than a half million people experience homelessness. Those who are homeless are more susceptible to catching communicable diseases. Poorer access to health care in general also typically translates to fewer opportunities for vaccinations.

"We have to be proactive. It’s not waiting for them to come to us. We have to go to them, and you have to keep going out," Maye added.

This group and others across the country are relying on networks and nonprofits who have already built relationships with those who are homeless to encourage them to come in and get vaccinated.

"You have to look at it as a super charged campaign to encourage people to be vaccinated."