My name is Marylyn Creer and I recently graduated from the Master of Public Health degree program at Boston University School of Public Health. Going into my second year of the program, I worked with the Partners In Health and Housing Committee because the plight of residents who are living in marginalized communities is a very serious concern of mine. I have worked with residents from various housing developments who suffer from a number of health disparities, including those created by the environment in which they live, inadequate access to healthy foods, and access to safe parks where they can exercise and participate in recreational activities.
As I have also studied the gentrification occurring in Boston, I have had numerous conversations among residents living in public housing who continually complain about their inability to afford to relocate to other living facilities due to unavailability of affordable units; and who are stuck in their current housing situations. Many of the residents feel without hope of ever having the resources or means to purchase their own homes and to be able to exit from assisted living. Additionally, residents constantly complain of limited access to affordable and healthy food options. Even trying to reach grocery stores can be an expensive task, followed by the inability to transport grocery purchases. Therefore, many residents settle for purchasing unhealthy food options from nearby convenience stores or fast food restaurants. Such eating habits can ultimately lead to their development of health-related illnesses such as weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
During my time at the Partners in Health and Housing Committee, Dr. Candice Belanoff, Clinical Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University, has taken a keen interest in uncovering problems reported by residents in public housing through needs assessments. So far, we have worked together with at least three public housing developments, and the results of the assessments have been sobering. So many residents report limited access to healthy food options and travel limitations to get to much needed services that include food and medical services. Also, compared to Boston overall, their incidence of heart disease and diabetes is almost double that of the Greater-Boston area. Other discoveries include an elevated rate of depression among senior residents who have very few activities to engage in and feel hopeless and homebound.
One particular project that I recently participated in was an intervention for seniors that included bingo games that were brought to residents of one development, via grants awarded by Boston University’s Activist Lab to MPH Students. Bingo games for seniors were held monthly at the development. The residents loved the event and sometimes were accompanied by their grandchildren. At the culmination of the senior intervention, a prom for seniors was held on the BU Medical Campus near the end of August. The prom also included providing bingo at the event. Awards and prizes had been donated for the event by individuals including donations from my church and family in Alabama. It was an incredible event. Residents arrived dressed in their Sunday best, with many in gowns. They danced to old school music—with some on canes, walkers and even in wheelchairs—and Dr. Belanoff attended to share this magical event.
As I move forward to my own personal pursuits, it is evident to me that my interaction with populations in marginalized communities has given me firsthand awareness and experience of the many problems that exist among residents. I have realized that many are tied to a need for new policies that can address inequities experienced by many residents—inequities that include adverse living conditions and fewer educational and employment opportunities, as well as mass incarcerations within their communities that not only impact their accused loved one, but their entire family for generations to come as they attempt to support their incarcerated family member, oftentimes denying themselves of resources much needed to sustain their own lives. It is all of these concerns in mind that I am now determined to investigate those avenues.
As a former elected neighborhood president in Birmingham, Alabama for over 20 years, and a union organizer and representative, I learned the importance of developing needed policies for the underserved and for interacting and networking with elected officials and representatives to introduce and promote passing of legislation that could make a real difference in helping underserved, marginalized communities. I have learned the hard way, through my current and past work, that this is one of the best mechanisms for change. I understand that investigating and becoming a change agent in the legal and political system may be my next best path for action.
It is clear that housing has a large effect on the health of individuals. Housing insecure individuals have high rates of chronic physical health conditions, mental health conditions, and various disabilities, and face barriers to accessing health care (APHA). Dean Galea’s Homelessness and Health Dean’s Note presents evidence and offers frameworks for discussing solutions for the various health consequences of homelessness. He argues that current interventions rely on health care systems and do not confront the social policies and structural factors that really influence housing status of marginalized populations. Read more about public health and housing and the BUSPH Activist Lab initiatives.
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