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Crowded shelters and the vicious flu brew perfect storm for the homeless

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

A steady trickle of men made their way in to get shots. Among them was Robert Ford.

He had been unemployed and homeless for about two years, he said. He is diligent about his flu vaccines, in part because he has diabetes. He takes medication to manage it and watches his diet. By the end of the night, he was one of 26 men who got vaccinated.

For those who fall ill, isolation is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus -- a resource that is difficult to secure for the homeless, even when they're sick.

Unity Health Care manages the medical respite beds for the district.

In the city, 12 of the beds are reserved for women in a shelter, and 33 others accommodate men in a separate location.

Crosland said 45 medical beds for the more than 7,700 people living without homes in the district are "definitely not" enough to meet the demand.

Moreover, these areas are not equipped to isolate a person with the flu from the rest of the population. The women's respite beds consist of 12 bottom bunks scattered throughout the general clients' sleeping quarters at Patricia Handy Place for Women.

"I think we're going to get hit," said Dr. Janelle Goetcheus, chief medical officer for Unity Health Care. "It's only a matter of time."

Shelters in Santa Fe, N.M., are also allowing those sickened by the flu to rest in medical respite beds. At the Interfaith Community Shelter, an increasing number of clients using these accommodations to recover from the virus and upper-respiratory infections, said Sue Carr, assistant to the executive director.

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On doctor's orders, Gabaldon occupied one of those beds after being released from the hospital.

After several days, she said she's "coming around." But her physician gave her permission to stay four more days in medical respite, for which Gabaldon is grateful.

"I still feel weak," she said. "But thank God the doctor gave me four more days, because it's freezing out there in the morning when they put us out."

(Heidi de Marco, a reporter and producer for California Healthline, contributed to this report. Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

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