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As reopening approaches, efforts continue to get vaccines to people without shelter

Parker Miles Blohm
In this January 2020 file photo, tents are pictured inside an encampment in Olympia.

The lifting of most pandemic restrictions in Washington state is just days away, set for June 30. Ahead of it, KNKX has been talking with people in the health-care community about how they feel. Today, we focus on what reopening means for people who are unsheltered.

Tye Gundel has worked with homeless service organizations in Thurston County for about eight years. A lot of that work has focused on people who live in encampments, including with the group Just Housing. She now works with Olympia Mutual Aid Partners.

Tye Gundel
Tye Gundel

Gundel said the sentiment behind vaccine hesitancy among unsheltered people isn't that different from the overall population.

“When I’m hearing other folks who are not unhoused expressing concerns about the vaccines, I think a lot of that is tied to trust, and that’s exactly what we see with folks who are living in the encampments,” she said. “There are really high levels of distrust for institutions, government bodies, and a lot of people feel very scared of the vaccinations.”

Plus, there’s misinformation circulating on social media and by word of mouth. To combat all of that, Gundel and other outreach workers have a lot of one-on-one conversations with people.


More about vaccine hesitancy: “One of the camps that we work very closely with has about 20 folks living there. One person is currently interested in getting vaccinated. The rest are pretty adamantly against it. We’re seeing things like that where it’s one or two people in these smaller camp communities that are wanting to get vaccinated. It’s helped when myself or other outreach workers have been able to say, ‘We’ve been vaccinated, this is what it was like for us, this is how it feels.’ That has made folks pause, and also as they’re seeing some of their friends get vaccinated, that’s made a difference.”

On the pace of reopening: “I think it’s moving along a lot faster than the pace that people are ready for, especially in more marginalized communities, like folks living in encampments who are really just starting to think about getting vaccinated. The reopening also adds a lot of pressure to them, especially as we start to see separation between the people who have been vaccinated and the people who haven’t. Already, obviously, folks who are living in camps or who are unhoused, feel separated from the larger community. I think that just kind of feeds that.”

On barriers: “One limitation that is pretty unique to folks living unhoused is that even the type of vaccine they need is a barrier. We know it is really difficult for folks that are living unhoused to keep track of schedules. Appointment times are always challenging. So we really have to rely on the Johnson & Johnson vaccination (which only requires a single dose). There are still things like transportation issues, a lot of folks don’t have IDs, a lot of people don’t have primary care providers, so those are all additional barriers.”

This is the third in a series of conversations. Previously, KNKX spoke with the head of the Washington state Department of Health, Dr. Umair Shah, and with Dr. Kevin Martin, the chief medical officer for Kittitas Valley Healthcare.

Our podcast "Outsiders," done in collaboration with The Seattle Times Project Homeless, gave an in-depth look at homelessness in Olympia, and is a great resource for a deeper understanding of the issues facing people who are unsheltered. We urge you to listen.

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Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.