Written by Tanya Terry
On June 21, 2021, there were over 250 people who were reporting themselves as experiencing homelessness in Flint and Genesee County, according to a Flint-Genesee County Continuum of Care report. This number is dependent upon being able to identify the people and, as such, is probably significantly underreported, according to Shelly Hoffman, development director at Shelter of Flint.
“And, like the percentage of people in the shelter who are vaccinated is a moving target, so is the number of people experiencing homelessness, as it changes from day to day,” Hoffman said. “A family comfortably housed today may find themselves without a home tomorrow.”
Hoffman said there are several factors that cause individuals to experience homelessness, and they are frequently not what people think they are. She said many people live paycheck to paycheck and are just one missed paycheck or one mishap away from ending up unsheltered.
“Glancing at our call log – the list we keep of all of the people who phone us each day for help – I see an employed teacher, who asked us to call her back during her planning hour,” Hoffman added. “I see an elderly woman who was discharged from an assisted living facility and left with nowhere to go. I see a family whose house burned down, one whose home flooded and another where a tree fell on their house. I see a young woman whose abusive father used her name to obtain utility services and now, because there is money owed on this account, she can’t get an apartment of her own. These are not exceptions to the rule. These are simply a few of the many reasons why a family may find themselves without shelter.”
People living in congregant shelters are far more susceptible to COVID, simply because they are living in close quarters with people who aren’t from their family. For those who go to stay at Shelter of Flint, there is typically a vaccination rate under 20% when the individuals or families first arrive. About 50% of the residents in the shelter are children under 12 who are not able to be vaccinated.
When the Shelter of Flint was presented with an opportunity for funding to do more outreach than they already were, the team at the shelter looked at the possibility of offering gift cards to people in the shelter and those living unsheltered to try to increase the vaccination rate among these populations. The program was named the Vaccination Incentive Program (V.I.P.). Those who get vaccinated in this program receive a Visa gift card for $50. The program is funded through a Greater Flint Urgent Relief Fund mini grant, which was managed by the United Way. The Shelter of Flint was granted $5,000 to purchase 100 gift cards. The goal is to vaccinate 60 people living in the shelter and 40 people living unsheltered.
Emily Wheat, PATH (Project Assistance to Transitional Homelessness) outreach coordinator for the Shelter of Flint, told the Flint Courier News about the process used in PATH to identify individuals experiencing homelessness, approaching these individuals and offering them vaccinations.
To be eligible for PATH individuals must meet two criteria. They must be literally homeless (staying outdoors in the streets). They must also suffer from severe mental illness.
Typically from about 6-9 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Wheat and the rest of the PATH team into homeless encampments, abandoned buildings where people are living and other places where people experiencing homelessness are likely to be in order to locate these individuals. They also do outreach generally every other weekend and at other times when possible. The team is able to connect them with other resources such as bus passes, giving connections to the Center for Hope to receive clothing or enroll in housing programs, seeing if the individual is interested in going into a shelter and helping them make arrangements to do so, ensuring they have Bridge cards for food and Social Security benefits if eligible, providing them with a government phones or bringing them sandwiches. Wheat then explains vaccinations are offered at the shelter and discusses the importance of good health. Wheat said they only open the door to make the vaccines available, but they let individuals make their own decisions, providing bus passes to receive them or rides if wanted and making sure to keep up with when the second vaccine is due.
Jordan Garland, 27, told the Courier he was a resident of My Brother’s Keeper of Genesee County homeless shelter. He was initially scared about getting vaccinated because he thought a big machine was used, but said his mother encouraged him to get vaccinated to stay healthy. Garland received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He said it was pretty simple and though he experienced a side effect of tiredness from the vaccine, he feels good knowing he has more protection from COVID-19.
Siarah Cole, COVID health educator for Shelter of Flint, meets with new intakes at the shelter and discusses that there are 50 plus people living in the shelter at any given time. She discusses the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and the availability of the COVID vaccines. She allows the shelter residents to ask her as many questions as possible.
Lately, the Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been offered at Shelter of Flint approximately once a month.
There are many opportunities for vaccination throughout the county. If you know of someone experiencing homelessness who may need and want a vaccine, you can contact the Shelter of Flint Outreach Team or health educator when available, or can simply take them to a pharmacy.
“People who are experiencing homelessness are just like you and me…,” Hoffman said. “Vaccinating any individual protects other people that they come in contact with.”