I'm 'a constant loudmouth' about vaccinating the homeless

Rev Bill Crews on the Covid-forgotten

While many Christians are debating what the church should and shouldn’t say about Covid-19 vaccinations, Rev. Bill Crews is ploughing ahead with getting vaccines into the arms of vulnerable people.

He is opening the doors of Ashfield Parish Uniting Church in Sydney’s Inner West (where The Rev. Bill Crews Foundation is based) as a Covid-19 vaccination clinic for vulnerable people. And he’s now planning to broaden this idea to other Sydney churches.

The people he is serving are homeless, and especially rough sleepers. And they have been forgotten by the federal government in its vaccination roll-out plan, according to Crews.

“That’s despite most of these vulnerable people having at least two, and many have three, pre-existing chronic health conditions. So they could die if they get [Covid-19],” he tells Eternity.

“Vulnerable people are the ones who are forgotten all the time. We have to keep bringing it up – ‘look after them’.”

“I would ring and say, ‘C’mon, you’ve got to vaccinate the homeless. They’re as vulnerable as the elderly.” – Bill Crews

Crews “pushed and pushed” for months to get access to vaccines for the homeless and other at-risk people in his local community in inner western Sydney.

“When the pandemic first hit, I was onto the health department about what to do and how to do it …

“You can see how vulnerable these people are, and society’s vulnerable to them. We come across boarding houses where you’ve got 12 men sharing a toilet.

“So I would ring and say, ‘C’mon, you’ve got to vaccinate the homeless. They’re as vulnerable as the elderly. They are often living in a situation that’s like a Petri dish, and then they’re wandering all over Sydney.'”

This is the second reality that Crews says “is not getting through” – that unvaccinated people who are homeless present a risk to society, as well as to themselves.

“Society is vulnerable to them because they can spread it as they wander around. This is the first time where it doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire or a homeless person, you’re equally as vulnerable. And we have to look after one another.”

Crews’ advocating has finally paid off. A pop-up vaccination hub was set up at the Bill Crews Foundation in Ashfield by NSW Health on July 13. 157 people were given their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine that day.

“It was just being a constant loudmouth, to tell you the truth, that made it happen,” Crews laughs.

“It’s not from lack of compassion by the health department,” he adds. “… Everyone was constrained by the lack of vaccines and wondering where they should go. There were a lot of difficulties and arguments about priorities. So it was just struggling to get [the vaccines] to the right people at the right time.”

As well as cajoling the health department, Crews and his team of volunteers also had to convince people to come and get the jab.

“We work hard on getting them here. We give them a meal after the jab,” he chuckles.

Now serious, Crews explains that many of these “forgotten” people aren’t familiar with Covid-19 restrictions and other information about the virus.

“For most of our people, life’s a struggle anyway. Most of the vulnerable people who come have three chronic illnesses, so they’re used to doing it tough. So [Covid-19] is just another blow.

“Many of them don’t quite understand [about Covid restrictions], so we have to explain it. We have to be very, very careful to make sure the social distancing is right. We have to employ Covid marshals to make sure people are distanced …

“And they’re not the sort of people who think anything is for them, because nothing ever is. So a lot of them don’t read signs on the street because it doesn’t mean anything to them.

“So, we’re constantly reiterating the basic rules: keep clean, keep safe, keep distanced.”

This week, people vaccinated at Ashfield Uniting on July 13 were scheduled to receive their second Pfizer dose. However, a guest at the foundation’s Loaves and Fishes free restaurant on July 26 tested positive to Covid-19.

Crews describes the “chaos” this positive case has had on the operations of his foundation in a video he posted on Facebook.

“I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a battleground,” he shares on the video.

But instead of simply shutting down, over the past week, the foundation has worked hard to “immediately change everything we did”, says Crews.

“A lot of our volunteers are older, so we had to stop using volunteers, and staff have also had to staff home. For this week, we’re paying people from an agency to come and prepare meals,” he explains.

When asked about the expense of this, Crews says, “it will cost us a fair bit because agency people aren’t cheap, but we’ll just have to swallow it.”

So the foundation is still providing free, takeaway meals – 1000 a day – for people to collect from a van outside the centre or delivered to several others areas of Sydney.

“So everybody will get a hot, nutritious, fresh meal – that’s been my commitment from 40 years ago when we began all this. It’s still going on. It’s gone on through the whole pandemic. It will go through this pandemic and way beyond,” Crews asserts on the video.

The need for these free meals has increased 25 per cent since the start of this Sydney-wide lockdown in June, says Crews. Although, he notes, this need had already been growing since the March 2020 lockdown.

“During the last lockdown, I think we fed the half the overseas [university] students. And a lot of refugees and other needy people – we reach out to them as well,” says Crews.

Man eating a free takeaway meal

The Rev Bill Crews Foundation is currently serving 1000 free takeaway meals a day Ann-Marie Calihanna/ Kerr Communications

While the recent positive Covid case has created challenges, Crews notes it could have been a lot worse if they hadn’t opened their church for vaccinations.

“All I can say is thank God that a couple of weeks ago, everybody who we’re in contact with got the first shot of Pfizer,” he says.

Crews is hoping for a good turnout for the second-dose vaccinations, which will now take place at the church next week.

Beyond that, he is planning to take vaccinations to vulnerable people in Liverpool, south-west Sydney, later this month.

“It went so well here, that we’re going to do the same thing out there – probably from out of our health van outside Liverpool Uniting Church,” says Crews.

When questioned if he thinks other churches should also be thinking about opening vaccination hubs for at-risk people, Crews says:

“I think churches are supposed to be refuges for the vulnerable and most needy, you know? I hear all the time people saying, “This is God’s place and we want to get down on our knees and pray. This [church] is for praying and not for anything else.

“My reaction to that is you have to do your religion. Religion is not just words and gestures; it’s actually doing.”