Credit: Doctors Without Walls Santa Barbara Street Medicine

As Santa Barbara settles further into the orange tier and vaccinations rates rise, the streets have begun to teem with life again. It was just over a year ago when the city started to resemble a ghost town as residents retreated from public areas amid the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. But one group never left.

The homeless population of Santa Barbara County, which was about 1,900 people according to an early 2020 report, has not been able to shelter in place the way many have, yet one local organization is helping them stay safe and informed.

Since March 19, 2021, Doctors Without Walls — Santa Barbara Street Medicine (DWW-SBSM) has been vaccinating the community’s homeless populations against COVID-19 with portable outdoor clinics that move about that city. The clinics are held twice a week and appear at area shelters, streets, parks, and other accessible areas. DWW-SBSM also vaccinates in congregant settings including The Santa Barbara Rescues Mission, PATH, Faulding Hotel, Riviera Hotel, and Isla Vista Pallet City. 

As of earlier this month, nearly 1,000 homeless and vulnerable individuals have been vaccinated by DWW-SBSM according to cofounder and interim executive director Maggie Sanchez. “My goal is to vaccinate 1,500 people, which would double the number we have now, but it will probably be way in excess of that,” she said. 

Throughout the past decade, DWW-SBSM has provided free on-the-street medical care to mainly homeless populations, although they aim to help any citizen that is in need. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and volunteers have been on the streets keeping homeless individuals informed on safety, symptoms, and general information about COVID-19 with a four-page pocket guide. This is also how they have gotten the word out about portable vaccine clinics. 

The clinics have been running efficiently with almost no issues, according to Sanchez. The outdoor setups operate similar to how typical clinics are administering the vaccine, with intake forms and regulatory check-up questions. Volunteer scribes keep electronic medical records, and all computer systems are worn as mobile harnesses that assist in keeping track of patients’ vitals. Patients who get the COVID-19 vaccine also have a picture taken of their vaccination card in case they lose it. 

“This population and our clients have been amazing and so responsive and helpful around everything,” Sanchez said. “They believe that they are members of our community, and they want to keep our community safe, so they are doing their part.”

DWW-SBSM works in partnership with Santa Barbara County Public Health, who provide the vaccinations and give direction on which shelters need doses. The portable vaccine clinics can currently be found throughout the week in places like Alameda Park, Pershing Park, The Rescue Mission, Leadbetter Beach, and many other locations. The street medicine outreach team updates all of their daily stops and times on their website

“In order for our community to be safe, we need to make [homeless people] safe, so for me, it has not only been about serving the clients themselves, but it has always been about serving Santa Barbara and keeping our local community healthy and safe,” said Sanchez. Beginning last week, DWW-SBSM also began vaccinating migrant agriculture workers in Carpinteria.

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