A man pushes a grocery cart containing personal items, including clothes and shoes, down a street in Memphis
A man pushes items in a cart while walking down Front Street in downtown Memphis. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The drive to vaccinate unhoused people against COVID-19 continues in Memphis on Aug. 11 at a “Healthcare for the Homeless Day,” where organizers expect about 200 to attend.

The event, organized by the Community Alliance for the Homeless and Hospitality Hub, will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 590 Washington Ave. There will be vaccinations administered by the Memphis Fire Department, as well as health exams and screenings, haircuts, and food catered by Central BBQ, said Kelcey Johnson, executive director of Hospitality Hub.

The outreach comes as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise sharply and vaccine interest dwindles in Shelby County. There were 236 confirmed cases reported on Tuesday, with a seven-day average of 258 cases. Just over a month ago, the seven-day case average hovered around 30.

In Shelby County, 47% of residents (including those too young to be vaccinated) have gotten at least one shot.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There were 162 people hospitalized Thursday in either acute care or the ICU, “many of them on ventilators,” Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said at a press conference. At one point last month, there were only 50 people hospitalized.

In Shelby County, 47% of residents (including those too young to be vaccinated) have gotten at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Johnson said the event is another “huge” opportunity to convince more unhoused people to get vaccinated. 

To date, 313 people have gotten at least one shot through CAFTH outreach, which provides services to people experiencing homelessness. That could be up to 42% of the unhoused population, said Dustin Kane, who coordinates CAFTH’s vaccination program with the city of Memphis. The total number of those experiencing homelessness this year is unclear, he said, because the count may be misleading due to conditions caused by the pandemic.

In 2020, CAFTH estimated there were 1,022 people experiencing homelessness in Shelby County. This year, they put the number at 739, 638 of whom are adults. But an official count was difficult to determine because of complications caused by the pandemic, mainly due to the federal eviction moratorium  that may have reduced the number of unhoused people, and the possibility that some stayed longer with friends or family during the pandemic, Kane said.

To keep track of vaccination status, CAFTH uses a database called the Homeless Management Information System. It stores pictures of people’s vaccination cards, in case they’re misplaced, he said. 

The organization noticed a decline in vaccine interest in recent months, which reflects what has happened nationwide. 

To combat hesitancy, CAFTH has organized seven vaccination events since March in partnership with the fire department, Hospitality Hub, Memphis Union Mission, Living for Christ Restoration House, and The Salvation Army. Memphis Area Transit Authority buses were used as mobile units, with windows kept open to increase ventilation and three people allowed on for vaccinations at a time. 

Some expressed a “distrust towards the system,” Kane said. But seeing case managers, friends and family get vaccinated – and talking with first responders who had facts ready – helped ease some people’s fears.

“We’ve been able to get people to show up at these events, incentivize them to get vaccinated and it just makes them more safe.”

Kelcey Johnson, executive director of Hospitality Hub

“I think just having the opportunity to continue that line of communication…  and being there to show that we’re here for them and we’re understanding of the situation that they’re in, and giving them the facts of what’s happening right now and why it’s important, I think, was very beneficial,” Kane said. “And I think over time, helped more people that we’ve seen take that step and want to get vaccinated too.“

Hospitality Hub staged its first event on April 1, Johnson said. A successful incentive has been the organization’s work program, a partnership with the city of Memphis to combat blight. Prospective workers must have been vaccinated or had a negative COVID-19 test in the previous seven days to be eligible.

But vaccinated workers are given preference, which spurred nearly 150 people to get shots, Johnson said.

“We’ve been able to get people to show up at these events, incentivize them to get vaccinated and it just makes them more safe.” 

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