This story will be published in Street Spirit’s April edition.
The sun was out at People’s Park as people sat around in clusters, playing chess, enjoying the shade from trees, listening to music, and talking to each other.
It was a normal day at the park with one notable exception: clinicians from Berkeley’s LifeLong Medical Care’s street medicine team were set up by the basketball courts, offering the COVID-19 vaccine to park residents.
“They came right to my tent,” said Nicole, a new resident of People’s Park. “It was amazing.”
When homeless people became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in early March, mobile medicine teams like LifeLong jumped into action. Now more than 1,600 homeless people have been vaccinated in Alameda County, according to Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless. This includes 738 people in shelter settings (including shelters, transitional housing, community cabins, safe parking, and recovery programs); 432 people in street settings (including encampments and people on the street); and 500 residents of the county’s Safer Ground program, who come from both shelters and the street.
These numbers do not include people living doubled up—that is, people living with friends or family members. They also do not include those who made their own vaccination appointments at health clinics, hospitals, behavioral health programs, or community vaccine sites.
These numbers put Alameda County ahead of neighboring areas, such as San Francisco, which have yet to develop a robust, coordinated vaccination outreach effort specifically for homeless people.
“I was looking forward to getting the vaccine because I want life to get back to normal.”
People’s Park was one of the earliest locations where LifeLong administered vaccines for people living unsheltered.
Dani Burnich-Line is a street outreach community health worker with LifeLong who works on a team covering parts of Berkeley and Oakland. She said that People’s Park is a good location for vaccinations. “The luxury of having a park with a lot of people is that I just have to run around and get the word out, rather than having to bring it from corner to corner looking for people who want the vaccine.”
LifeLong went out to the park for the first time on March 11. They brought the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On the first vaccination day, there were so many people interested in getting the shot that they had to turn people away. When LifeLong went back a second time on March 16, those who were not vaccinated the first time lined up to receive their shot while health workers walked around the park looking for others who might be interested.
A reporter hung around the park that afternoon and spoke to a handful of people about why they were choosing to get vaccinated.
“I have COPD, which puts me at greater risk than most people,” Nicole, 42, said. “So for me, it was a big deal, the vaccine. It came down to quality vs. quantity. If I catch COVID, my quality of life won’t be very good.”
While Nicole generally prefers holistic health remedies, she feels that with COVID-19, it is better to be safe than sorry. She was initially apprehensive because of the possibility of having a negative reaction, but after speaking with friends and family who had been vaccinated, she decided to go for it. “Friends and community said they got a little sick, but not much. They only got a couple of days of symptoms,” she said. Experts say these symptoms are the body’s immune system preparing its defense for the virus in case you should be exposed in the future—there is no actual COVID-19 in any of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the shot cannot give you the virus.
Several people said they were getting the vaccine out of concern for their health. “I’m getting it because I want to not be affected by this. It’s like anything—smallpox, chickenpox, you want to be protected,” said a 57-year-old park resident known by many as Uncle Boomer. “It’s a no-brainer, in a way.”
“I think there’s a perception that homeless people don’t care if they get or spread illness, which is not true.”
Others in the vaccine line said they were opting in for social reasons. “Being able to tell people I’ve been vaccinated, I think I’ll get a better social reaction,” said Jennifer, 48. “Homeless people are concerned about what kind of illnesses you might be carrying, so I think it will help decrease stigma. Plus, it puts it in [housed] people’s minds that homeless people can get and seek medical help—that we are socially responsible. I think there’s a perception that homeless people don’t care if they get or spread illness, which is not true,” she said.
When asked about why some houseless people are wary of the vaccine, Jennifer said that there is a common fear of being turned away from the ER in the homeless community, which compounds the fear about what could happen if they, for some reason, have a negative reaction to the shot.
Not everyone at People’s Park was eager to get the vaccine. “I have heard a lot of people get it and say it’s painful,” said Xee, 27, who did not plan to be vaccinated that day, saying he wanted to wait a while to see how the shot turned out for other people before opting in himself.
A man who goes by the name Project, 65, was in line to get the shot but had hesitations. “I hate it. I don’t want to do it,” he said, citing concerns about whether the vaccine had been too quickly developed and uncertainty about its efficacy against new strains of the virus. Still, he felt that getting the shot was worthwhile. “To me, it seems I will have an easier time with various organizations that will require [it],” he said.
This reporter returned to People’s Park on March 30 to follow up with the individuals who had been vaccinated on the 16th and ask if their feelings about the vaccine had changed since getting it.
“There was a three-day yuck period,” said Nicole. “But it was just a touch—it came and went quickly.” She described feeling cold symptoms and nausea and said she slept a lot. Despite the “yuck period,” Nicole encourages others to get the shot. “I think definitely everyone should get it. I think it’s worth it, especially being on the streets. It eases our minds, and ultimately that’s a big help,” she said.
Uncle Boomer had a similar experience. “It went okay. I didn’t have many side effects. I was a little nauseous, but nothing I couldn’t get over,” he said. When asked if he believed other people should be vaccinated, he said yes. “Those who didn’t get vaccinated, if it does hit us again, are more susceptible. Now, my immune system can fight it off and make a full recovery,” he said, noting that each person should go through the process of researching the vaccine first, as he did. “Do the research for yourself, make sure it’s going to do its job,” he said.
“I feel real good about it. I was looking forward to getting the vaccine because I want life to get back to normal,” said a man who is known by many at the park as Jaguar. “I miss hearing the UC band. I miss heckling the preachers on [the UC Berkeley] campus.”
Jaguar was vaccinated on the 16th as well, though he waited until everyone else had received a shot before getting his because he is currently living indoors, unlike the other vaccine recipients. He said in the days after his shot, he had a little headache and mild fatigue. Now, he encourages the people around him to get vaccinated.
“I tell people to go get it,” said Jaguar. “It’s not what the news is saying, it’s not what other people are saying, it’s me, your friend, telling you it’s not that bad.”
LifeLong vaccinated 35 people in their two visits to People’s Park, according to Burnich-Line. That’s more than half the number of people UC officials say currently live at the park. Of the people LifeLong approached, Burnich-Line said it was about a 50/50 split between those who wanted to be vaccinated and those who did not.
“We either get people who are an absolute yes, absolute no or on the fence,” she said. Another benefit of giving vaccines in a setting like People’s Park, she said, is that the communal nature of the space allows for people to talk to each other about their experiences. “For those ‘on the fence’ people, we want to have the most education available possible. And who better to come from, than someone living in the community?”
LifeLong teams are now going out twice a week and vaccinating people on the street. This effort has been successful thus far, but it requires careful planning. Once a vial of vaccine is opened, it cannot be re-sealed, which means that healthcare workers have to be careful about where to take the vaccine and when so as not to waste doses. They may consider: are there any community meals or mobile shower units coming by on a given day? That might be a good opportunity to bring the vaccine to a group of people who want it.
“For the most part, it’s just been showing up in different areas of our zone, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got 10 doses, is anyone interested?’” said Burnich-Line. So far, LifeLong says they have used all of the vaccines they’ve brought out while doing street outreach, but this is not always easy.
As a group, unsheltered people tend to be anxious about the vaccine, due to deep-seated mistrust in government services as well as having complex personal health histories. There is also significant overlap in the unhoused population and communities of color, who have thus far received a smaller share of available vaccines despite bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of this, communication between unhoused people plays an important role in making sure the vaccine feels both accessible and safe. And as mobile health workers continue to bring the shot from corner to corner and park to park, getting a critical mass of unsheltered people vaccinated will be a community effort.
Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.