Unhoused Residents Lead Vaccine Drive for Hesitant Peers

Geneva Strickland trekked to the RV- and tent-clad homeless encampments in Roosevelt Park Wednesday evening, flyers for Friday’s San Jose vaccination clinic in hand, and was immediately berated by the skeptical unhoused residents for being an outsider—except, she’s not.

Strickland has a home today, but recently spent six years in similar encampments, fighting for survival. That’s why the 54-year-old intimately knew how to match the unhoused residents’ tone, talk them down and explain herself. She’s been departing the comfort of her home at Villas on the Park for a few hours each day this week, to hand out resources and assuage vaccine fears among the region’s most vulnerable residents that local health officials are eager to get inoculated against Covid-19.

The worries that circulate about the injections include rumors of tracking devices and government-driven population control, conspiracy theories that even some middle-class Americans with consistent Internet access get swept up in. But such misinformation is especially harmful—and potentially deadly—among people who are homeless.

Homeless people who contract Covid-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require intensive care, and two to three times as likely to die than the housed population, according to a report from the University of Pennsylvania. Many unhoused residents struggle with health issues, but feel pushed aside in a city battling a crushing housing crisis.

That’s why Strickland made it her mission this week to get them accurate information about San Jose’s vaccination clinic for homeless residents Friday.

“It helps to be able to say that I've been out there, because a lot of people are very fearful of outsiders,” Strickland told San Jose Inside. “I can relate, talk to them, tell them my story and it does seem to ease them a little bit.”

Strickland has alternated between hopping on her fixed-up road bicycle and reserving a rental car to reach the homeless people who fell through the cracks after the vaccine became available in February. She puts her hope in the power of word-of-mouth and a dash of empathy spreading faster through the encampments than the coronavirus.

At least 10 unhoused and formally unhoused residents have led the push to inform still-hesitant unhoused people about the vaccination event and health fair at San Jose City Hall on Friday. The event was coordinated by the city, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Asian Americans for Community Involvement and dozens of homeless advocacy organizations.

Shaunn Cartwright, a community volunteer and founding member of The Unhoused Response Group, said while advocates know a lot of the local unhoused residents, there’s no substitute for homeless or formerly homeless people to get the word out.

“People always see unhoused people as lazy or dirty, but here they are mobilizing to get the word out to their brethren to get vaccinated,” Cartwright said.

Indeed, the literal legwork of physically reaching and connecting with homeless residents has fallen largely to people who have lived in those communities. The latest worry that volunteers are battling are fears about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was paused this week due to blood clot concerns. Strickland got the jab Monday, after Hope Clinic offered a shot to all residents of her building. She hasn’t experienced negative side effects.

“I was telling everyone, ‘Oh it's good, don't worry about it!’ so what I’m telling them now is, “Well I got it, and I’m still alive,’” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there who don't want to get vaccinated because they're scared of it, especially in the homeless community, and that's really unfortunate. I’m trying to let them see that it's not as bad as they think it is.”

Shared experiences, trust and empathy work to fill the gaps. Officials expect more than 200 unhoused residents, among others, to arrive in downtown San Jose—many on free shuttles from five encampments, which will be managed by unhoused and formerly unhoused people.

One woman living in one of Santa Clara County’s pallet homes will be directing people to buses at one of the five pick-up locations at the Columbus Park baseball field, Corie Court and Oakland Road and the parking lots at Branham Light Rail Station, Home First Shelter and the Roosevelt Youth Center.

The attention on the south side of town is especially timely, Cartwright said, because recent sweeps of camps at Highway 85 and Santa Teresa and Gundersen High School have displaced many residents.

“The south side has had Covid and the south side has just been scattered everywhere,” she said, “so getting them vaccinated is a big deal.”

While county officials have been working to vaccinate people at encampments, shelters and hotels, Friday marks the first vaccination event specifically planned for and by unhoused residents, complete with ID applications, mental health services and connections with public defenders.

“We’re filling in the gap of rallying people together and bringing them over to City Hall, where it's easy access for folks to get a vaccination, sit down with a tax person for a stimulus filing, get a hot meal and other wraparound services,” community volunteer Nguyen Pham said. “The moment they’re off the street, they come back out to help.”

Anyone interested in volunteering to vaccinate unhoused residents or others can volunteer with Silicon Valley Strong.

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