A health care worker delivers a COVID-19 vaccine to a client on March 23, 2021. An outreach team composed of Preble Street, Greater Portland Health, at Maine Medical Center workers have delivered "close to 200" vaccines to people experiencing homelessness in Portland from Monday through Thursday. Credit: Courtesy of Preble Street

PORTLAND, Maine — Weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak seeped into the city’s homeless shelters, hundreds of people battling housing insecurity have quietly received vaccinations this week.

Health care and social service providers have teamed up to vaccinate “close to 200” clients against the virus. Many of them have experienced homelessness during the pandemic and weathered outbreaks within the city’s emergency shelter system. The ongoing vaccination effort has been led by Preble Street, Greater Portland Health and Homeless HealthPartners, an outreach partnership with Maine Medical Center.

The vaccination push has required “tremendous outreach work” to reach clients, said Elizabeth Jackson, chief operating officer of Greater Portland Health. Staff made “hundreds of phone calls to patients experiencing homelessness,” as the three agencies did considerable on-the-ground outreach to schedule and refer individuals to get vaccinated, Jackson said.

“Outreach looked like going to pick people up, walking around and engaging people in the neighborhood, and making calls and texts to people with phones,” said Caitlin Corrigan, Preble Street’s health services director. Vaccines have been given to age-eligible people at the Preble Street Resource Center and the city’s three “housing first sites,” which are staffed residential facilities that offer a bridge to more permanent housing.

The state has run COVID-19 vaccination sites in several locations in Maine, including the Portland Expo, where they administer 500 shots every Monday and Wednesday.

But those shots are scheduled by appointment, requiring internet access that’s been hard to come by for people experiencing housing insecurity, whose routines have been radically altered by the pandemic and its related shutdowns.

The vaccination effort has instead relied on established relationships from staff in the city’s network of homeless services providers, including Amistad, Milestone and the Opportunity Alliance, and coordination from city officials in public health and social services.

The number of people staying in area hotels put up by the city in lieu of other shelter options has steadily climbed this winter. 572 people stayed in hotels Tuesday night, using federal coronavirus relief funds and state General Assistance, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.

A few dozen others have been identified as “shelter-resistant” by city officials, “choos[ing] to sleep outside for a variety of reasons” because the shelter system does not work for them, according to Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow.

“Almost everyone was really excited by the opportunity” to get vaccinated, according to Corrigan.

“I think people in this community are constantly underestimated in terms of how they value their health and health access,” Corrigan said.

Folks staying in homeless shelters weathered a COVID-19 outbreak that spread to at least 43 people in January and February. That squeezed many of them out of city-run Oxford Street Shelter, which has operated at half-capacity to prevent the spread of the virus, and into quarantine hotels on the outskirts of the city.

Most vaccine patients in this week’s effort have been in the city’s shelter system during the pandemic, while others “live in the neighborhood and did not have access to vaccination through other sources yet,” Jackson said.

The organizations plan to extend the “no pressure outreach” around vaccine access to the city’s shelter hotels next week.