UBCO researchers examine how pandemics impact the homeless

UBCO School of Social Work director John Graham says that homeless people under the age of 65 have a mortality rate five to 10 times higher compared to the general population. Photo: courtesy UBCO.

A team of UBC Okanagan researchers is looking at strategies that could help the homeless during a pandemic.

John Graham, director of UBC Okanagan’sSchool of Social Work, said while many populations have been targeted with guidelines to keep them safe, homeless people have been mostly overlooked.

While this research project began a few years before the pandemic, Graham said his team quickly turned their attention to the impact of COVID-19. His team looked at peer-reviewed publications, dating back to 1984 that examined how homeless populations were impacted by other highly contagious or communicable illnesses such as tuberculous, H1NI and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

“Those experiencing homelessness do not fare well in terms of general health and this risk rises during public health outbreaks,” said Graham. “Research findings have shown that homeless people under the age of 65 have a mortality rate five to 10 times higher compared to the general population.”

Before this research, Graham, who is the principal investigator of theKelowna Homelessness Research Initiative, said no one knew how pandemics historically impacted services for the homeless sector.

It’s important to remember that when public health officials make recommendations and responses to a community, they don’t necessarily take into account all populations,” said Graham. “Some of the methods of response are not easily transferable to the homeless populations — that’s partially because of their transient nature. But it is not unusual for homeless individuals to have a number of underlying illnesses, which could leave them more susceptible to virus obtainment, transmission and mortality.”

Postdoctoral researcher Jordan Babando said a range of journal articles were looked at from across the world and identified six key themes that particularly affect the homeless: education and outreach, the structure of services provided, screening and contact tracing, transmission and prevention strategies, shelter protocols and finally treatment, adherence and vaccination.

“Those experiencing homelessness often live in low‐capacity shelters or transient locations that likely have no access to hygienic resources,” said Babando. “This places them at increased risk of obtaining and spreading viruses in comparison to the general population.”

The goal of the research paper is to help public health agencies and homelessness sectors formulate a pandemic response to homeless populations.

“We need to move the needle as quickly as possible when it comes to our homeless situation,” said Babando. “COVID-19 is extraordinarily significant for all of us, but most especially our vulnerable people. We hope these findings will contribute further to the dialogue [to] help to end homelessness.”

The paper, published inHealth and Social Care, was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


UBC’s Okanagan campus is an innovative hub for research and learning founded in 2005 in partnership with local Indigenous peoples, the Syilx Okanagan Nation, in whose territory the campus resides. As part of UBC—ranked among the world’s top 20 public universities—the Okanagan campus combines a globally recognized UBC education with an entrepreneurial community that welcomes students and faculty from around the world in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

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