GRAND RAPIDS — Two teams of nonprofits in Grand Rapids this year received grants from national organizations focused on racial disparity in health outcomes.
In May, a new initiative known as Invest Health announced $3 million in grants, given as $60,000 awards to mid-size cities around the country. In total, 180 teams applied, and 50 were chosen. Grand Rapids was one of four Michigan awardees, along with Flint, Lansing and Pontiac.
Then in August, the Office of Minority Health (OMH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded a grant of $1.78 million to Arbor Circle. The grant, spread over five years in $356,000 annual increments, is part of the OMH’s new Re-Entry Community Linkages (RE-LINK) program, focused on improving health outcomes for young men of color transitioning from jail back into a community.
Invest Health was formed as a collaboration between the Reinvestment Fund and the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The goal is to bring city leaders together to address low-income community issues, such as affordable housing, employment opportunities, education, and more, depending on the community.
While many people view increasing access to care as the primary health care issue, Invest Health is aimed at solving the problems before they start, said Jeremy Moore, director of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities and a member of the five-member local team involved in the project.
“This is really focused on investable ideas,” Moore said. “It’s looking at what it is that can actually be done to move needles. There’s lots of opportunities here.”
In addition to Moore, the Grand Rapids team includes Rosalynn Bliss, mayor of Grand Rapids; Darel Ross, co-executive director of LINC UP; Jamon Alexander, adult program director for the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology (WMCAT); and Mindy Ysasi, executive director of The SOURCE.
A wide array of health problems occur at much higher rates in lower-income and minority communities, compared to higher-income, white communities. For children in low-income families, those problems include asthma, hearing issues, digestive disorders, elevated blood levels and more, according to research done by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.
For example, the research found that 8.2 percent of “non-poor” children had asthma in 2006, compared to 23.3 percent of poor Hispanic children.
Over the last few months, the Grand Rapids Invest Health team has been working to identify the city’s primary problem areas. In that time, the team landed on three main health issues.
Firstly, the 2014 infant mortality rate for black families is 9.9 out of 1,000, compared to 4.5 out of 1,000 for white families. That number is still an improvement over 2003 when Grand Rapids had the worst black infant mortality rates in the state. Secondly, 610 children younger than age five were exposed to lead in 2015, up from 470 the previous year. The team found that approximately 82 percent of those exposures took place in historically segregated ZIP codes. Thirdly, what Moore calls the “food and movement” problem has only become worse over the years, as the rate of obesity in Kent County has increased from 17 percent in 1993 to 27.6 percent now. Additionally, less than one-third of Kent County youths report eating the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables regularly.
The team is now working to expand this data and then conduct stakeholder and community engagement while developing an action plan, Moore said. As the name implies, the main goal of the initiative is to identify the problems and then discern where time, energy and resources would best be invested in the future.
As one example of what an investable idea might look like, Moore pointed to The SOURCE, one of the partner organizations in the Invest Health team.
The SOURCE works with the private sector, especially manufacturers and their employees, and assists workers in both finding and maintaining a job, which in turn helps employers with talent attraction and retention.
Moore said that kind of workforce development could be expanded and combined with other recruitment services like WMCAT if unemployment was identified as a major issue in low-income communities. Then the community would become wealthier, and health would improve.
“Study after study shows your health is linked to wealth,” Moore said. “If that’s the case, should we be trying to skip that and just address people’s health — or address all of these things at once, including workforce development or family economic security, which also includes entrepreneurialism and housing?
“We feel like if we hit those areas and then some key health areas like lead exposure, infant mortality, and food and movement, we’re hitting it from all sides.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
The RE-LINK grant to Arbor Circle has a similar purpose, although with a narrower focus. While Arbor Circle is acting as the lead, the proposal was written by many local partners, such as the Grand Rapids Urban League, Cherry Street Health Services and Hope Network, to name a few.
Arbor Circle President and CEO Jack Greenfield said the partners had already been discussing how to address the issue of recidivism, when an ex-offender relapses into criminal behaviors after leaving a correctional facility. Then the grant came along, he said.
For a few reasons, the RE-LINK program is focused on men of color, ages 18 to 26. Greenfield said there’s “not a lot of services being focused on the younger population right now,” adding that being arrested at a younger age greatly increases the chances of being rearrested later in life, which creates a cycle.
This is also a critical age for establishing a life direction, as people age out of high school and adoption agencies as they turn 18 years old, according to Kris Mathis, a board member for Arbor Circle. Establishing a support system early on is key to cutting off that cycle of recidivism.
“These young men are getting in trouble in certain areas, being sent to prison or jail for an extended amount of time, and then being sent right back to that area that it all began in,” Mathis said. “The moment they get out, they can be influenced by anything and everything that got them in there to begin with.”
Arbor Circle is using the money to increase staffing in various ways, including more “peer navigators” working with the men in jail.
“Those relationships are so hard to create within the population,” Greenfield said.
The first 48 to 72 hours are especially crucial, he said. That’s why Arbor Circle works with people while they’re still in jail to establish those relationships ahead of time.
The recidivism rate for young men of color in Michigan is nearly 80 percent, according to Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, director of the OMH.
“This has important social and economic costs, not only for Grand Rapids but our nation as a whole,” Gracia said in a statement. “Nationally, we spend about $80 billion each year on keeping people incarcerated.”
This has a harsh impact on the communities these men come from, according to Greenfield. Not only does recidivism affect their families directly, but the local economy struggles when many of the community’s members aren’t gainfully employed. And as wealth in the community suffers, health becomes an issue as well, which is a large part of why the OMH began the RE-LINK program, Greenfield said. There’s also the matter of crime rates increasing.
While Arbor Circle’s primary goal is to create a comprehensive transition process through a network of collaboration, Mathis said the group wants to bring in new partners to address issues beyond re-entry. This problem exists because the community itself needs help, he said, and recidivism then only serves to hinder the community further.
“You also have to look at the families of these people, the community they’re in, the businesses there, the schools, etc.,” Mathis said. “Everything in that community is affected each time someone comes out, doesn’t get the support they need and falls back into the systemic traps there.
“There has to be something put in place to make that change — not just for the individual, but for everyone in that community.”