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For Tampa Bay’s homeless, coronavirus vaccine can be a tough sell

Local governments and nonprofits are taking the vaccine to the streets to protect one of Tampa Bay’s most vulnerable populations from COVID-19.
Eric Rhanes, 35, who has been homeless for about a month, receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Tampa on Thursday thanks to the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless.
Eric Rhanes, 35, who has been homeless for about a month, receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Tampa on Thursday thanks to the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jun. 19

TAMPA — It takes just a short trip to the pharmacy, grocery store, doctor’s office or drive-through vaccination site to get vaccinated.

But those are places are inaccessible to the homeless, or they fear they will be turned away from them.

So in recent months health officials, local agencies and nonprofit groups have been taking vaccinations to the streets with a series of outdoor pop-up sites to try to protect Tampa Bay’s homeless population from the coronavirus and move the community closer to herd immunity.

Even then, it can still be a tough sell, said Hillsborough County Director of Affordable Housing Cheryl Howell.

“They may be challenged with getting something to eat, so their long-term health is not their first thought.” she said. “Finding a place to sleep that night, that will be their first thought.”

A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which was being used to vaccinate the homeless at a Tampa clinic operated Thursday by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which was being used to vaccinate the homeless at a Tampa clinic operated Thursday by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

More than a dozen vaccination events targeted to reach Hillsborough homeless have been held this year, according to the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. In Pinellas County, pop-up vaccinations sites have been run in collaboration with Daystar Life Center and Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, which treats veterans.

In most cases, homeless patients received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That eliminates the uncertainty over whether they will return for the second shot required of other COVID-19 vaccines.

But it’s difficult to determine just what percentage of the region’s homeless are now protected from the coronavirus.

Florida Department of Health data on vaccinations does not breakdown whether the recipient is homeless. And local agencies who serve that community say they only receive limited health data because of federal privacy laws.

The pandemic has also made it tougher for local agencies to know how many homeless there are outside shelters. About 2,200 people in Pinellas experienced homelessness, according to its 2020 point-in-time count, the last full survey conducted. Hillsborough counted about 1,450 homeless that same year.

Related: Can you safely count Tampa Bay’s homeless during a pandemic?

Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said a mobile vaccination bus has been used to vaccinate people staying in local shelters and at places like Trinity Cafe, which provides free meals. On some days, she said up to 200 doses were administered, but those numbers include shelter staffers and volunteers.

It’s tougher to reach the unsheltered homeless.

Heart for the Homeless, a Tampa group that provides free food to low-income and homeless people on holidays, held a vaccination event Thursday on the parking lot outside the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1402 building on E Harrison Street in downtown Tampa.

Tampa nonprofit Heart for the Homeless partnered with the Florida Department of Health to vaccinate homeless people in downtown Tampa on Thursday.
Tampa nonprofit Heart for the Homeless partnered with the Florida Department of Health to vaccinate homeless people in downtown Tampa on Thursday. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

The event offered incentives such as free doughnuts, cookies and soda donated by Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Wendy’s. Florida Department of Health medical staffers were on hand to administer the 36 shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that were kept in cool boxes.

But only five people were vaccinated during the 3-hour event, and just two of them were homeless.

Eric Rhanes, 35, was walking toward a bus terminal when he saw the tent and wondered over. Ten minutes later, an adhesive bandage covered the needle mark on his arm. He snacked on a doughnut while waiting for his 15-minute post-shot observation period to elapse.

He and his mother have been homeless for about a month, he said. They cannot afford the $1,300 average rent for a Tampa apartment.

His mother has been living in a motel in Sulphur Springs. Rhanes has been sleeping on a friend’s sofa on recent nights but said he’s had to spend nights in a local park, too.

Although wary of shots, he said he was inspired by his mother to get vaccinated. The coronavirus, he said, is the least of his worries.

“We’re just looking for a place to live,” he said.

Related: Tampa sets up tent city so homeless can shelter in place

Marcelle Kelley, who organized the event, hopes to set up more vaccination sites in the next few months. A pre-med rising sophomore at Georgetown University, she said she is concerned that the pandemic has made it tougher for the homeless to get health care.

“Because the vaccine is something being subsidized, this is a way I can help,” she said.

Kelley, 19, said she has encountered suspicion, concern and conspiracy theories when trying to convince homeless people to get the shot. There is less hesitancy when it is recommended by a group or person they are familiar with, she said.

“Vaccines will be ticket to get back into normal life,” she said. “We need to get them to people who don’t have access to them.”

A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which was being used to vaccinate the homeless at a Tampa clinic operated Thursday by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless.
A healthcare worker prepares the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which was being used to vaccinate the homeless at a Tampa clinic operated Thursday by the nonprofit Heart for the Homeless. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Hillsborough County’s Homeless and Community Services has organized pop-up vaccination events in conjunction with groups that work with the homeless population including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Crossroads and The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Hillsborough.

Director Felicia Crosby-Rucker said those groups helped them identify places where unsheltered homeless people congregate.

“The biggest challenge is the mobility,” Crosby-Rucker said. “We removed that barrier by bringing the vaccine to that population.”

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