Public health and faith-based organizations partner to offer food and vaccine to the homeless (SC, CA, FL)

Local health departments in South Carolina, Florida, and California partnered with area shelters to bring vaccine to homeless and low-income residents. Although homeless people were not explicitly listed as an ACIP priority or target group for vaccine receipt, several health departments decided to prioritize them during vaccination efforts. Homeless people tend to have a variety of risk factors for becoming severely ill from influenza. For instance, people who stay in shelters are at risk of becoming infected or infecting many other people due to crowded living and sleeping areas. Also, many homeless people have a difficult time accessing healthcare services, and many have one or more chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

The Anderson County Health Department in South Carolina collaborated with the First Baptist Church of Anderson and other local churches to coordinate their vaccination efforts with a traditional lunch for the homeless. Every year, First Baptist holds a New Year's Day gathering for the homeless. Approximately 250 volunteers from area churches provide guests with a hot meal and a winter coat. The Anderson County Health Department staffed tables near the church entrance, where they offered H1N1 vaccines to guests and volunteers. After 30 minutes, staff noticed that guests were walking by their table without stopping to inquire about or receive a vaccine. They discovered that their signs were insufficient, because many guests were unable to read. Health department staff began walking around the church and talking to people face-to-face, and the number of vaccine recipients quickly increased. Health officials and church volunteers estimate that approximately 1,000 people received a meal and a winter coat, and more than 100 people received vaccines during the three-hour event.

The County of Sacramento Division of Public Health in California also held an H1N1 vaccination clinic for homeless and low-income people. The county collaborated with Loaves & Fishes, a faith-based and volunteer-driven organization that provides meals and shelter to the homeless. The clinic was held at the Loaves & Fishes shelter to provide vaccine to people who may have difficulty accessing public or private health services. Partnering with the faith-based organization also allowed the health department to reach homeless and low-income people who trusted the efforts of Loaves & Fishes, which had played a significant role in their survival.

Although the Sacramento vaccine clinic was intended to serve the homeless, only 10-15 percent of people waiting in line were clients of Loaves & Fishes; others were pregnant women or elderly people who had come from the suburbs to receive vaccine. Health officials were unable to reach many of the homeless people they had sought: Many people left because of the long lines.

Several Florida counties collaborated with area shelters and volunteer organizations to provide vaccine to homeless residents. The Hillsborough County Health Department and the Pinellas County Health Department became concerned about access to vaccine after several cases of influenza occurred in shelters. Pinellas County partnered with the Pinellas Homeless Coalition to hold a vaccination clinic for the homeless, while Hillsborough County collaborated with Servants of Christ Tampa, a group of parishioners dedicated to feeding the homeless. The Hillsborough County clinic took place in a makeshift restaurant in an old gas station, where homeless guests could receive a meal along with a seasonal and H1N1 vaccine.

Although homeless individuals were not specifically designated to receive H1N1 vaccine during the early autumn vaccination efforts, several county health agencies recognized and addressed this pressing public health need in their communities. Although these agencies used different approaches, partnerships with faith-based shelters and meal events meant that homeless people could access vaccine at a venue where they felt comfortable and safe.

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