Local partners set out to improve health via housing options

  • Franklin Regional Council of Governments Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2020 3:10:54 PM
Modified: 11/22/2020 3:10:37 PM

A regional partnership has received a first-time $1 million grant from the state to improve people’s health by upgrading their housing.

The state Department of Public Health announced this week that one of the inaugural awards of the Massachusetts Community Health and Healthy Aging Funds included a five-year $1 million grant for a program of the state Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) Network called Improving Housing to Improve Health, or IH2.

The initiative is a partnership of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Community Legal Aid and Citizens Housing and Planning Association. The project is a “unique opportunity” for the partners to collaborate on changing policies and systems that limit access to housing in the Franklin County/North Quabbin region.

“The focus will be to identify and remove barriers that prevent people with a history of incarceration and/or substance misuse from finding and keeping housing, as they were identified as a priority population by the Community Health Needs Assessment of the region,” FRCOG Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker said. “Housing is one of the most important drivers of health. A person without a safe, warm, stable place to live cannot focus on all the other things that make and keep us healthy. When we look at who in our community has a very hard time getting housing, it is our neighbors with a history of incarceration and of substance misuse, and this leads to much worse health outcomes for them.”

The project aims to make lasting changes to housing systems and policies by approaching the issues involved from several angles, starting with initiatives that leverage the expertise of the lead partners.

The regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority will support a housing navigator position that will devote his or her time to assisting people with a history of incarceration or substance misuse in finding affordable housing.

“We are excited for the opportunity to dig deeper into the barriers that keep our most vulnerable populations from stable housing, and to be a part of creating solutions for housing access and stability,” Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Gina Govoni said.

Through IH2, Community Legal Aid has created the first dedicated re-entry attorney position serving both Franklin County and the North Quabbin.

“Community Legal Aid is delighted to collaborate on this grant with our partners in Franklin County,” said Jennifer Dieringer, managing attorney of Community Legal Aid’s Franklin County office. “We hope that our work, which will focus on sealing and expunging criminal records and providing representation in housing and housing subsidy hearings, will reduce the significant housing barriers that people with a history of criminal court involvement and substance use disorder face.”

FRCOG has created a regional housing coordinator position to assist communities with improving city and town housing policies, including utilizing the Community Preservation Act for housing, updating zoning regulations, rehabilitating abandoned housing and the creation of affordable housing trusts.

That work will be led by FRCOG Senior Planner Alyssa Larose, who said, “This funding will help build our regions’ capacity to create more housing opportunities through sustained support and assistance to municipalities to help move local housing efforts forward.”

FRCOG is also partnering with the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and North Quabbin Region and others to convene an advisory board of people with lived experience of incarceration or treatment for substance misuse. The group will guide the partnership’s work over the course of the five-year grant.

“Learning from people who have faced these challenges first hand will improve our ability to advocate for meaningful change with town officials, landlords, housing authorities and courts,” Walker said.

The state Department of Public Health provided a total of $14.7 million in these grants to support 32 lead organizations and 35 of their partners, impacting 163 cities and towns across the state. All partners, including the local ones, have committed to leading efforts to address the root causes of health inequities by disrupting systemic barriers to health and tackling institutional and structural racism head-on.

During the pandemic, the need to support such efforts is even more imperative, Walker said.

The goal of the funds is to work with community partners to increase awareness and address the impact of structural racism on population health, and to create long-term, meaningful changes in population health outcomes, including mental health and chronic disease.

The grants will be invested in initiatives in three core areas of focus, including working on long-lasting, community-driven policy, systems and environmental changes that will make it easier to lead healthy lives and that will reduce health inequities, such as racial patterns of segregation in communities and a lack of affordable housing production, Walker explained. They will also be invested in organizing and coordinating CHIP efforts that include the partnerships collectively setting and addressing community health goals and working to address policies and systems that increase opportunities for healthy aging.

The state Executive Office of Elder Affairs is partnering with the Department of Public Health to support the Healthy Aging Fund. More information about it can be found at: www.mahealthfunds.org. For more information about the Franklin County/North Quabbin CHIP, visit: www.frcog.org./chip.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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