Health authorities and other groups are in a race against time to ensure Western Australia’s vulnerable homeless people are protected against COVID-19 before the state’s borders open.

Mervyn Eades, CEO of the Ngala Maya Aboriginal Corporation and advocate for housing the homeless, told National Indigenous Times he feared homeless people “will be the first cabs off the rank” when the state’s border opens on 5 February, potentially causing an influx of new cases of COVID-19.

“Amongst the Indigenous homeless, they move around a lot, they interact with a lot of people and will be big carriers. Those who don’t die from it, they will carry and spread the disease,” he said.

Michelle Mackenzie, CEO of Shelter WA told National Indigenous Times low vaccination rates and pre-existing conditions made homeless people particularly vulnerable.

“The vaccination rates are really low and we know that people sleeping rough are often quite unwell and are at risk of getting very unwell from COVID,” she said.

“We know this is a huge issue and there was a meeting [this week] with the Department of Health and Department of Communities where the need for a coordinated vaccination strategy was discussed… We are going to work with Health and Communities to coordinate the strategy with the sector and with health providers which will include Aboriginal controlled and operated health providers.”

Mackenzie said there has been good work done “in terms of peer-led vaccine support, Elders and other community members working with the community”.

“Before Christmas there were dedicated vaccine clinics in engagement hubs where street present homeless people could get the vaccine… We are bringing the sector together, looking at what works and making sure it is culturally informed and culturally appropriate to boost vaccination rates among rough sleepers. There is an understanding it is very important; we just need to get cracking and make it happen.”

Glenn Mace, Executive Director, Service Delivery for the Department of Communities, told National Indigenous Times that is “working closely with other agencies and funded community service organisations to ensure people at risk of or experiencing homelessness have appropriate access to vaccination support”.

“Sector partners St Pats, Uniting WA and Ruah all continue to offer regular vaccination services for people experiencing homelessness at their respective day centres in the Perth CBD and Fremantle areas. On site vaccination clinics are supported by Street Doctors (St Pats) and Homeless Healthcare (Uniting WA and Ruah). Homeless Healthcare is also providing vaccinations for clients engaged through its Street to Home outreach program.”

Mace said that in addition to providing vaccination clinics on site, community service organisations are also assisting clients to access their proof of vaccine certificates.

“All homeless accommodation service providers are following the Chief Health Officer’s public health advice. This includes the requirement to wear face masks indoors. WA’s Transition Plan measures will be finalised in the lead up to February 5, when we know more about Omicron and have up-to-date health advice,” he said.

The WA Department of Health is responsible for the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program in the state. While more than 88.1% of Western Australians overall above the age of 12 are now double dose vaccinated, vaccination rates remain low among homeless people and in certain regions of the state.

A WA Health Department spokesperson told National Indigenous Times “WA Health is continuing to work in partnership with peak bodies and service providers to assist people identified as at risk of COVID-19 disease”.

“This includes people experiencing homelessness, sleeping rough or utilising emergency accommodation, who often find it difficult to isolate and/or have limited usage of mainstream health services,” they said, adding that the WA COVID-19 Vaccination Program set up the first vaccination clinics in partnership with specialised homelessness organisations in the middle of last year to provide COVID-19 information and vaccinations to people experiencing homelessness.

“WACVP continues to prioritise and support the provision of COVID-19 vaccination services to people experiencing homelessness who can attend any WA state-run clinic for vaccination without a booking.”

The spokesperson said the program has facilitated in-reach services at more than 50 sites used by people experiencing homelessness, and provides information twice a week to a range of organisations about current State-run and other vaccination clinics, as well as partnering with community organisations to reach homeless people.

By Giovanni Torre