'It's a relief:' Some Calgary homeless put aside fears to get COVID-19 shots

·3 min read

CALGARY — Donald Campbell shook and wiped away tears after he received his first COVID-19 vaccination at a walk-in clinic for Calgary's homeless.

The 49-year-old said he has battled alcohol and drug addiction and spent years living on the streets.

He also has a chronic fear of needles.

"I was scared to get the needle, but I did it," he told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.

He said he needed to be brave and get the vaccine to protect his friends.

"I grew up on the street with them. They're my family. And it's my responsibility as a man to stand up and just do it."

The clinic, held six times a month at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary, is sponsored by the not-for-profit Be The Change YYC homeless outreach team. The team also hands out food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, tents and tarps several nights a week in the city’s downtown.

"Some of our clients have been waiting awhile. They sleep in tents. They don't go inside shelters. And so this clinic is a great way to meet people where they're at," said founder Chaz Smith, who was once homeless himself.

He said many street people fear getting COVID-19.

"The people experiencing homelessness they're cold, they're hot, they're hungry, they're thirsty. They're looking for their most very basic needs of life."

The clinic administered 12 doses the first time it opened. This time, the entire inventory of 18 Pfizer-BioNTech doses was gone by Wednesday night.

Two nurses with the public health services group OKAKI, which is Blackfoot for "be wise," tried to reassure those who showed up.

"Some of them are antsy and they don't want to stay too long," said Alison Page.

"I think it's the vaccine itself. It's new. They think the government's trying to give them something to track them. There's all those rumours."

But there has been positive feedback, she said. "They've been really grateful."

Kyron Arnold, 24, stood in line and got his second COVID-19 shot.

"It is a relief," he said. "I'm just ready to get things back to normal and I don't care if you want to jab me in my arm. I'll take it if it means I can go hang out with my friends and go see a movie."

Tim Richter, head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said 235,000 different people experience homelessness in a year. It's about 35,000 on any given night.

Vaccine clinics for the homeless in Canada need to get the job done quickly, he said. Many in the population have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus.

"Everything I'm hearing is they're progressing well, that people are taking the vaccination. There has been an important process of building trust," Richter said.

"It's also a race between vaccinations and the variants. We've seen in the larger cities, like Toronto, the variants just tearing through the shelters and even the quarantine facilities."

Jennifer Greyeyes, who grew up in Winnipeg, also got her second shot at the clinic — just to be safe, she said.

"COVID's on the streets. Apparently it's killing everybody," she said.

"I actually don't know what to believe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021.

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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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