Peer support helps people experiencing homelessness overcome vaccine hesitancy

By: Julie Showers

During Blanchet House of Hospitality’s lunch and dinner hours, you will find Jennifer Coon on the sidewalk talking with guests in line for food. A petite woman in a yellow safety vest, Coon offers assistance to people struggling to survive in downtown Portland.

Jenn helps Richard, a resident at Blanchet House, sign up for a vaccine appointment at the Oregon Convention Center.

And she is busy.

Within one hour, she brought a plate of food to a man in a wheelchair, found clothes for the naked, band-aids for wounds, lent a listening ear to the lonely, and distributed COVID-19 vaccine information.

“It’s very challenging because people out here don’t get a lot of news information about the virus. Sometimes they just want to be heard and I’m a good listener. I have a lot of resources I can refer them to,” Coon says. “I often remind myself that I used to be there.”

Coon has the rare combination of lived and learned experience that makes her uniquely suited to support Blanchet House’s guests. Once homeless due to drug addiction, she found her way off the streets with the help of many organizations.

She eventually received training from the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon to become a Peer Support Specialist. A generous grant from the Oregon Health Authority gives Blanchet House the ability to fund Jenn’s critical services to the community.

“Getting here [to Blanchet House] is a big accomplishment for people,” Coon says. “These are the people that are sleeping in doorways. This is a really big accomplishment for a lot of them. This is their lifeline.”

Because she has built trust she was able to sign up and transported more than 25 shelter residents to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations at the Oregon Convention Center (OCC). In addition, she offers information and directions to other vaccination clinics to a countless number of people experiencing homelessness. In between meal services Coon supports Blanchet House’s more than 30 transitional housing residents.

Jenn talks out on the sidewalk near Blanchet House.

“One guy was so scared to get the vaccine. I was with him the whole way,” Coon recalls. “I drove him in my little car and he’s a big guy! He was so grateful that he had tears in his eyes. He says we’re bonded forever.”

Coon found that getting people to agree to the second dose of the vaccine at a later date was a bit of a hurdle. Many were reluctant.

“I give them a lot of information, let them make their decision, and help coordinate,” she says. “That’s a good starting point, a good foundation to get them hopefully in the right direction. I’m happy to be a part of it and I’m proud to be part of it.”