Methodist ministries help homeless combat Zika virus

Living in secluded wooded areas, homeless residents are especially vulnerable to Zika-carrying mosquitoes. -Photo courtesy Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa

While vacationers are warned to stay away from Florida and residents are urged to stay indoors, Florida’s homeless population has little recourse for escaping the Zika virus threat.

In past years, the swarms of mosquitoes that thrive in Florida’s hot, humid climate were little more than an annoyance to the population of people who make their homes on park benches, in cars, behind deserted buildings or in the woods.

But this year, with the looming risk of contracting the Zika virus, the presence of these pesky pests is posing a real health hazard for the homeless.

Rodney Dyess, director of The Homeless Ministry of Brooksville, is accustomed to seeing homeless men, women and children covered with mosquito bites. But this year, with the threat of the Zika virus, he has added insect repellant to his wish list of donations he distributes to Brooksville’s large population homeless population.

To support Dyess’ effort, First United Methodist Church of Brooksville has joined Operation Skeeter Stop, a countywide initiative launched by the Hernando County Extension Services to collect cans of insect repellent to distribute to the homeless.

Lilly Browning, who coordinates the church’s food pantry, said she learned about the initiative through her job as program coordinator for the extension services’ Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program.

“We have a large homeless population in Brooksville, and these are the people who are most vulnerable to contracting Zika since they spend all their time outdoors,” said Browning.

The First United Methodist Church of Brooksville has teamed up with the Hernando County Extension Services to collect insect repellent for the homeless.

While most residents don’t think twice about spending $5 to $8 for a can of OFF Deep Woods, the expenditure for a homeless resident could mean going without food, she said.

Browning, therefore, set up a donation drop box at the food pantry last week and has been using the church’s newsletter, pulpit announcements and the church’s Facebook page to publicize the program.

“We’re just getting started, but the response so far has been decent,” she said. “The extension’s goal is to collect 500 cans of repellant, and we want to do our part.”

On Florida’s east coast, more than 300 miles from Brooksville, Drew Kastner, a faith community nurse and the coordinator of the homeless ministry at First United Methodist Church of Miami, has launched a parallel effort.

“We knew Zika would hit us eventually,” he said. “It was just a matter of time. So I approached our pastor (the Rev. Audrey Warren) several weeks ago and she agreed we needed to do something to help.”

Aid from Warren’s congregation couldn’t come too soon. Miami has been declared ground zero for mosquitoes that carry the virus.

On Aug. 7, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that 14 people in a square-mile area north of downtown Miami have been infected with the Zika virus by local mosquitoes. Since Scott’s press conference, four more cases have been reported in the same area of Miami-Dade County. Statewide, Florida has had more than 200 cases.

“As a faith community nurse, public health is right up my alley,” said Kastner, who gives out meals, clothing and hygiene items to about 120 homeless residents every Sunday.

“The greatest danger from Zika is to pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant,” Kastner said. “Most of the homeless we see are men so there hasn’t been a great deal of alarm. They’re more concerned with basic survival.”

However, Kastner said everyone should be concerned. Last Sunday, he took advantage of his weekly outreach to educate the homeless about the virus and the need to take precautions despite their gender.

“Because the homeless have no protection from the elements, they’re especially susceptible to insect bites,” Kastner said. “And while a bite from a Zika-carrying mosquito might not be fatal to a man, there’s the possibility they can transmit the virus to someone who is more vulnerable.”

Like Browning, Kastner is using the pulpit and social media to spread the word.

“We’re asking everyone in our congregation to pick up an extra can of insect spray when they go shopping,” he said. “We’ll collect as much as we can, though it will never be enough.”

In addition to collecting donations of cans and bottles of insect repellent, his ministry has ordered a supply of wrist bands coated with repellent that volunteers will distribute to the homeless this Sunday.

“Miami is so hot and humid, the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes,” he said. “So we’re really going to have to think outside the box.”

Zika virus kits are available through the Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa. -Photo courtesy Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa

Warren said her church is investigating the use of various prevention methods, including mosquito netting and natural oils to deter mosquito bites.

“We’re working on a comprehensive plan that will go beyond handing out spray,” said Warren.

In Tampa Bay, which has had 15 reported cases of Zika, Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa has come up with an easy method for church ministries to get involved.

The nonprofit homeless organization, which receives support from the Florida Conference, as well as a number of Tampa Bay Methodist churches, has put together Zika virus kits containing mosquito spray, mosquito nets, standing water tablets and permethrin spray, which is sprayed on clothes by ministry volunteers to protect the homeless for up to six weeks.

The kits cost $23.50 and can be purchased online at

"We have quite a bit of homeless in the Tampa Bay area, about 1,800 in Hillsborough County alone,” Ariel Dewitt, senior coordinator of communications, said. “They're living in the woods, in cars and on the streets, and we've seen people come in covered in bug bites.”

For the latest updates on the virus, visit the Florida Department of Health website at

D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Tampa Bay area.

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