‘Keep everybody healthy’: How COVID vaccinations are protecting the unhoused

More than 100 people came to a two-day clinic in Grand Rapids to get COVID vaccinations. It’s one of the many ways Disability Rights Michigan is using a grant to protect the health of the state’s most vulnerable populations. 
Rena Rogers knows the importance of looking out for people. It’s the gospel she spreads to her Grand Rapids unhoused community.

"I don't like our friends dying," says Rogers, who single-handedly convinced more than 30 people to take part in a two-day clinic put on in February by Disability Rights Michigan (DRM). It was one of about a dozen the nonprofit puts on monthly around the state, including in Grand Rapids, to reach people who don’t have easy access to COVID vaccinations. 

"I just talk to them and say, 'C'mon now, we gotta stick together. Get all down here.' They like, ‘All right, Rena, let's go,'" she recounts in her gravelly voice. 

"Everybody loves me and I love everybody," she adds, with a wide smile and twinkly brown eyes. There's an effervescence about her spirit that lifts up those around her. She has felt the heartache of losing those closest to her. 

That's why she's passionate about telling people about the COVID vaccinations. "This will help you because you won't get sick. I don't want nobody to die. We got to go one day. We just don't want to go too soon."

Rena Rogers

Rogers was bundled in three layers of coats on a cold but sunny winter day. She’s staying at Dégagé Ministries, a women’s shelter, while working on getting more permanent housing.

"I had a place, but after my old man passed away, I couldn't keep up the rent," she explains. "I was with him for 35 years. I took care of him until he died of colon cancer. My mama had lung cancer. I took care of her. My baby sister had full-blown AIDS and I took care of her. All of them had six months to live. I took care of all three. I had a stroke and now I have grand mal seizures, and I don't let that stop me."

Helping her community

A caretaker by nature, Rogers became a de facto member of the team that provided more than 100 COVID vaccinations to the unhoused and others during the clinic near downtown Grand Rapids.

“Rena, we appreciate all you've done in the last two days. You are going to help keep your community healthy,” says Tamela Phillips, a DRM vaccine advocate, noting the complications that happen when an unhoused person or person living in a shelter becomes sick. 

Rena Rogers does a little dance at the DRM vaccine clinic in Grand Rapids.

“Yes ma'am, that's my point, to keep everybody healthy,” Rogers says.

Working with community leaders who will spread the word is a key to successful COVID vaccinations clinics, says Phillips. Those who came in were given $10 gift cards for flu vaccinations and $25 gift cards for COVID vaccinations, pocket size lip balm, hand sanitizer and blankets.

“When some people come through, they'll go back and tell the other people that we’re there,” Phillips explains. “We'll give them an extra gift card because they are communicators for us. There's a lot of homeless people who won't stay in shelters. Someone who comes and gets a shot may say, ‘Hey, I'm gonna go over to Heartside Park and let them know they are here because they may not have made it by the buildings and seen the signs.” 

Phillips oversees coordinating clinics held outside of metro Detroit, about 10-12 a month. They range from clinics for the unhoused to adult foster homes. Her background of 27 years in child welfare has given her the contacts to figure out how to find the vulnerable people who are likely to fall through the cracks. 

The COVID vaccination sessions are funded with a state grant that was supposed to run out in June but has been extended to Sept. 30. After that, the outreach for vulnerable populations will likely disappear.

The bag is filled with all the empty COVID vaccines administered during the clinic.

In 2023, the clinic provided 315 vaccinations during four clinics in Grand Rapids, and 111 flu vaccinations during three clinics. Two of the COVID and flu vaccinations were held during the same clinics. Across the state, DRM coordinated 228 community events at 94 sites for a total of 5,130 shots. The community events are clinics held at homeless shelters, housing commission/low-income housing sites, assisted living and retirement homes for seniors, community fairs, festivals, and other special events.

“Many people we serve have multiple disabilities,” says Phillips.

Targeting populations in need

In Grand Rapids, the Feb. 19-20 clinic was held at 106 S. Division Ave., which is used as a community building engagement hub by Dwelling Place, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing. It’s within a short walking distance of several homeless shelters and Heartside Park, a gathering spot for the unhoused.

The clinics are popular with the unhoused, says Brian Bruce, resident services coordinator with Dwelling Place. 

“There were at least 15 people lined up in the morning before they opened up, just so they could come here to get their vaccines,” Bruce says. “These clinics are very important. A lot of folks are probably not going to get to a normal physician to get their COVID shots. They're not going to be able to get to a Walgreens or Rite Aid or a Meijer or a Walmart to get their vaccine because transportation mobility is a huge issue.

Brian Bruce

“If you're experiencing homelessness, any sort of virus or bacteria  is very difficult to deal with. And quite frankly, a lot of people end up in the hospital. So a vaccine that can either help prevent you from getting COVID or reduce and lessen the effects of COVID is definitely going to be beneficial.”

During the first week of October while DRM was waiting for COVID vaccinations to be available, the team returned to the Dwelling Place location to provide nearly 100 flu shots. 

Vaccination clinics are new territory for Disability Rights Michigan, a Lansing-based independent nonprofit that advocates for and protects the rights of people with disabilities in Michigan. The state reached out to DRM because of its work to ensure that individuals with disabilities, their family members, and their caregivers have equitable access to vaccinations. 

DRM is tracking the number of people with a disability who receive the vaccinations as part of its health equity report. The health community usually doesn’t gather this kind of information and hasn’t included it on the state’s COVID vaccination dashboard, but Phillips says the National Institutes of Health is going to require such data. 

"It's really hard to advocate for some services if you don't have numbers,” Phillips says. “Part of our contract requires us to ask questions about disability."

Photos by Shandra Martinez

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of Michigan’s growing disability community. This series is made possible through a partnership with Disability Rights Michigan.
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