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Orgs urge gov’t to grant COVID-19 vaccines for people experiencing homelessness

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With no government plans in place to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines for people experiencing homelessness, the Australian Health, Housing and Homelessness Network (A3HN) and the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH) are calling for urgent action from the Australian and state governments.

People experiencing homelessness are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and influenza infections, and despite some of the over 116,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia being included in priority populations for early COVID-19 vaccinations, many, particularly those sleeping rough, will struggle to access the vaccination for a range of reasons.

Currently, those experiencing homelessness in Australia can be vaccinated due to old age, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identification, chronic medical conditions, severe mental health conditions or disability. However, many do not fall within these prescribed priority groups, leaving thousands of vulnerable Australians experiencing homelessness at risk. Additionally, there is no strategy to ensure those experiencing homelessness have access to vaccinations even if they are in priority groups.

“There are currently too many barriers in place for people experiencing homelessness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. We urge federal and state governments to immediately work with the sector to resource efforts to remove these barriers,” said David Pearson, CEO of AAEH.

People receiving influenza and COVID-19 vaccines are required to visit a doctor or service provider on three separate occasions, including two to four weeks after the COVID-19 vaccination for the flu shot.

“How is this supposed to occur for people who don’t have a home? It is the view of the Health, Housing and Homelessness Network that if the vaccine rollout is to be successful, the vaccination needs to come with appropriate accommodation,” said Mr Pearson.

In addition, scepticism about the need for COVID-19 vaccinations is reportedly higher among those experiencing homelessness than the general population, indicating that targeted education is needed to ensure safety among those experiencing homelessness and the wider community.

“People currently experiencing homelessness are a highly mobile group that are at heightened risk of contracting and/or spreading COVID-19. The lessons from this pandemic have demonstrated the need to implement a public health approach – including education, dissemination of information and a plan for follow-up vaccinations,” continued Mr Pearson.

COVID-19 has challenged us to think differently about many things. One of the lessons that our response to the pandemic has taught us is that ending homelessness is possible. The problem with the responses so far is that only a third of people given emergency accommodation during the pandemic were able to move into long-term housing.

“We need to treat homelessness, particularly rough sleeping homelessness, as much as a health issue as a housing or social welfare issue and most of all, we just can’t leave this issue in the ‘too hard basket’ any longer,” Pearson said.

This lack of planning for an effective vaccine rollout is why the AAEH is continuing to call for the Australian Government to urgently implement a COVID-19 National Rough Sleeping Homelessness Pandemic Response Plan – something that has been done in relation to mental health and domestic violence, but not homelessness.

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