N.Y. Black and Brown Supportive Housing Leaders Advise Officials on How to Ensure Equitable, Racially Sensitive Vaccination Rollout

“Addressing racial disparities in the distribution and access to the COVID-19 vaccine is pivotal in the fight to eliminate this virus. If systemic health and social inequities are not addressed, Black and Brown communities will continue to have an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. Tangible and immediate solutions must be implemented now.” Dr. Darlene Williams, Chief Program Officer at WIN, Inc.

A few of the Racial Equity in Supportive Housing Workgroup (RESH) leaders are represented in this Zoom session on 2/26/2021. The volunteer group is comprised of about 40 core leaders from a host of Supportive Housing agencies throughout the state of New York.

“The struggle to obtain a vaccination is severe for those who have limited access to technology. While headway is being made to secure vaccines for the most vulnerable amongst us. The need for distribution where the problem exists is paramount.” — Dr. Damyn Kelly, President and CEO at Lutheran Social Services of NY

As of the writing of this op-ed, nearly 1.5 million New Yorkers have contracted COVID-19, and nationally, more than 500,000 Americans have died from the virus.

We, Black and Brown leaders of the Racial Equity in Supportive Housing Workgroup (RESH), call for accountability and transparency in the vaccine distribution rollout, which has so far been logistically haphazard, inefficient, and particularly burdensome for our staff and tenants.

If New York officials are serious about getting the vaccine into the arms of disadvantaged people, stricken by poverty and race inequities, supportive housing operators should be key stakeholders at the solutions table.

Nationwide data tells us Covid-19 hospitalization rates are nearly 4 times higher for Black or Latino persons compared to white, non-Hispanic people. We also know that the COVID-19 mortality rates are almost 3 times higher for Black and Latino persons than their white counterparts.

Additionally, early vaccination research by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) suggests overwhelmingly that the percentage of vaccinations among Black people is smaller than that of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Its report points to examples in Mississippi where Black people account for 15% of vaccinations, compared to 38% of cases and 42% of deaths, and, in Delaware, 8% of vaccinations have been received by Black people, while they make up nearly a quarter of cases (24%) and deaths (23%).

By sheer nature of the work, supportive housing providers support (via programs and employment) those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, many of whom are struggling with comorbid health conditions. Our services are designed to mitigate myriad traumas and social determinants correlated with homelessness. And our workforce, which is primarily Black and Brown and women of color, bears direct witness to, and are not exempt from, the impact of the life-threatening and highly disparate consequences of COVID-19 on our clients and communities.

According to the Supportive Housing Network of NY (The Network), there are more than 50,000 units of supportive housing throughout New York. These units provide needed shelter to those with a history of homelessness, mental health conditions, and/or addiction, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS. The number of people served quadruples when taking into consideration other specialized programs operated by providers such as shelters, respite centers, street homeless outreach teams, day treatment programs such as PROS, senior centers, job training, and re-entry services. Many supportive housing residences in New York City also provide up to 40% of their apartments to low-income residents.

As representatives of the supportive housing industry, we call upon our elected officials and government partners to listen and act in alliance with our community. The people we serve already suffer the harshest effects of failed social and health policies. We demand the COVID-19 vaccination rollout be different. Therefore, we are making these recommendations for New York officials in their efforts to vaccinate the disenfranchised.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion is paramount in the times that we are living. The voice of black and brown individuals, that make up the majority of the NYC Supportive Housing program participants, must be heard. The populations we serve are underserved, under heard and regularly impacted with deprivation caused by social, political and health policies. In supportive housing, individuals and families suffer from chronic homelessness, disabilities and other woes. This is why we need to take a stance as leaders in our communities to ensure fairness and equity for our program participants.” — Stephen Dubose, Vice President, Supportive Housing at WIN, Inc.

  1. Do NOT mandate vaccinations for human services staff or program participants: Some New York lawmakers are crafting bills to make vaccinations mandatory in certain industries. We must uphold the self-determination of people living and working in supportive housing. People are hesitant toward the vaccine for several reasons including religious/political beliefs and a history of systemic racism. We should simultaneously encourage vaccination while respecting decisions to take or reject doses.
  2. Prioritize onsite vaccination of supportive housing residents, staff, and program participants: Priority is not simply about opening slots. Supportive housing sites should be prioritized for onsite vaccination events to help those with trauma, mobility issues, physical health or mental health challenges.
  3. Prioritize one-dose vaccinations for homeless persons: Living on the streets and in shelters makes it difficult to attend medical appointments. Homeless persons should be first in line for single-dose vaccinations that arrive in New York, such as the one produced by Johnson & Johnson. Supportive housing organizations are well-connected with the homeless through shelters, safe havens, transitional housing, street outreach teams, and other mobile health services.
  4. Entrust local pharmacies and community health organizations to help with vaccination efforts: Big-box chains like Walgreens and CVS should not control vaccination stock that hits the city. Local pharmacies have built trust and partnerships in their communities. In addition, community health partners are also closely aligned with supportive housing sites, with some even embedded within housing projects.
  5. Provide or financially support targeted vaccine education for supportive housing workers, program participants, and tenants: Culturally relevant vaccine education as well as effective distribution can help ease concerns. Officials should provide additional grant funds or financially support umbrella organizations like The Network, The Health and Housing Consortium, and/or The Corporation of Supportive Housing (CSH) to produce educational programming.
  6. Provide adequate transportation to vaccine appointments: We want the city to continue to subsidize transportation options. This includes MetroCard distribution, enhanced MTA Access service or rideshare/taxi services. Transportation is even essential for onsite clinics. Many supportive housing organizations have multiple locations, sometimes in different boroughs.
  7. Be thoughtful and transparent in the use of racial data to reach Black New Yorkers and other persons of color, who have historically suffered from a lack of quality healthcare services due to institutional racism and oppression: Vaccination efforts based on race and ethnicity should not only be considered by zip codes. Officials should make sure that people living in supportive housing sites in gentrified areas are not forgotten in targeted efforts. In addition, we encourage the continued use of racial data collected from first- and second-dose vaccinations to inform distribution efforts.

This op-ed is endorsed by the following persons. Endorsers are representing their own personal views and not necessarily those of their respective organizations or other affiliations:

Jeannette Ruffins — Chief Executive Officer at Homeward NYC

Diane Louard-Michel — Executive Director at Lantern Community Services

Frederick Shack, LMSW — CEO at Urban Pathways, Inc.

Tierrra Labrada — Senior Policy Analyst at Supportive Housing Network of NY (The Network)

D. Dayneen Caldwell, MS HR Ed, SHRM-CP, PHR — Chief Human Capital & Compliance Officer at WIN, Inc.

Dr. Damyn Kelly — President and CEO at Lutheran Social Services of NY

Stephen Dubose — Vice President Supportive Housing at WIN, Inc.

Morenike Williams — Chief People Officer at Community Access

Dr. Darlene Williams — Chief Program Officer (CPO) at WIN, Inc.

Alicia Sweeney — Assistant Vice President at Lantern Community Services

LaShonne Greene, LMSW, M.S.Ed. — Senior Vice President

Maygen Moore — Community Investment Officer NY Market Lead at CSH

Chandra Redfern, MS — Chief Operating Officer at Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers, Inc.

Mark Jennings, LMSW, MDIV — Associate Executive Director at Project FIND

The Racial Equity in Supportive Housing Workgroup is a volunteer affinity group launched in 2020 to examine and implement tangible solutions for racial injustices geared toward tenants, program participants, workers, and other stakeholders in the sector. For further information about this group reach out to Mark Jennings (mjennings@projectfind.org) or Tierra Labrada (tlabrada@shnny.org)

RESH is a volunteer affinity group launched in 2020 to examine and implement tangible solutions for racial injustice in New York-based Supportive Housing

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