The long history of racial inequities in the U.S. has left communities deprived of an environment that supports holistic healing. This deprivation has become more apparent and exacerbated by Covid-19, which has unveiled a reality that society has chosen to ignore. Repeatedly, disproportionate amounts of trauma and adverse outcomes on the Black and Indigenous people from natural disasters, pandemics, violence and economic challenges have proven to have a root cause in racism.

Healing Centered Framework

On May 12, Chicago affordable housing, healthcare, public health and a variety of other partners came together to discuss the importance of centering healing in the built environment and how it affects community health. Enterprise and the Illinois Public Health Institute (IPHI), with the support of Citi, hosted a webinar, Centering Healing, Serving Community, exploring the intersection between mental health, healing, and belonging and affordable housing development.

Dr. Meghan Venable-Thomas, Enterprise’s Cultural Resilience program director, introduced the Healing Centered Community Development framework and posed a question that many public health officials should be asking today.

How can we overcome the harm of injustice that is baked into the practice and process of development, and design more urban spaces, parks, homes and neighborhoods that are healthier and more equitable?

According to Dr. Venable-Thomas, the answer in community development lies in increasing practitioners’ decisions that:

  • Advance community priorities
  • Build trust between residents and community development organizations
  • Create spaces for healing and the advancement toward health equity

Identifying Needs through the Health Action Plan

The need to further explore Dr. Venable-Thomas’s question was illustrated in the findings of a Chicago-based Health Action Plan cohort, where understanding community health priorities was a fundamental step in their development process.

Leah Barth, program manager, Health Equity Alliance, Illinois Public Health Institute, shared how this was done with a Chicago Health Action Planning Cohort in partnership with four affordable housing developers: Claretian Associates, LUCHA and Evergreen Real Estate Group, Full Circle Communities, and Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation.

The cohort utilized the Health Action Plan process to integrate health into the design and development of selected affordable housing developments. The Illinois Public Health Institute served as their public health partner in this effort and led the collection of secondary public health data followed up with engagement of resident, community and government advocates – to assess the health status of the community and its surrounding area, isolate and identify priority community health needs and develop strategies to address said needs.

The results of this process lifted health priorities for the affordable housing developers, including living with chronic disease, food access and security, trauma and PTSD, mental illness, substance use disorders, age-related illnesses, community integration and community economic improvement.

Barth emphasizes how the Health Action Plan allowed housing developers to assess both the positive and negative health impacts their project or program could have on the target community prior to implementation. This process aided in developing strategies that promote a healthy and holistic environment by implementing design features like walking paths and fitness centers to combat obesity, local art and quiet spaces to reduce trauma and PTSD and accessible units to aid residents with age-related illnesses and physical disabilities.

Health Action Planning in Chicago Developments

Claretian Associates

Claretian Associates Executive Director Angela Hurlock shared the experience of partnering with a national group to restore and bring equity to a South Chicago YMCA that was forced to close its doors to the public, including the housing units and commercial space; thus, leaving its residents and patrons displaced or inconvenienced. Recognizing the positive impacts that the YMCA brought to the community, especially for the youth and senior populations, Claretian Associates sought to acquire the property, expand its facilities and maintain its operations at little to no cost to the community.

Claretian Associates was able to team up with the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and gain co-ownership of the YMCA and reopen it as the SALUD Center. Through the SALUD Center, Claretian Associates and POAH were able to implement design ideas that enhanced food accessibility, healthy living, safe recreation and access to affordable housing. Informed by the Health Action, they plan to incorporate a quiet space/cool-off room for the community, incorporate local art and décor and trauma-informed design principles into the building design.

Full Circle Communities

Service Programs Senior Manager Janet Li and Real Estate Development Project Manager James Dow of Full Circle Communities (FCC) further exemplified how holistic healing can be managed through partnerships in community development via FCC’s collaboration with the Christian Community Health Center (CCHC) – a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC).  Together, they are building Torrence Place, a mixed-use, 48-unit permanent supportive housing project in the south suburbs of Chicago.

The Enterprise Green Communities certification-compliant project serves low-income families with 30% to 60% average median income (AMI), veterans and people diagnosed with chronic diseases and houses an on-site, state-of-the-art community health center. In addition to the health status data provided by IPHI, health priorities were also identified via multiple focus groups and community surveys. Designing strategies around the health priorities aided in implementing on-site amenities and adaptive-living features to promote resident inclusion.

LUCHA and Evergreen Real Estate Group

Sam Comrie of LUCHA and Kate Gronstal of Evergeen Real Estate Group introduced us to their Health Action Plan (HAP) for Encuentro Square, which is an affordable housing project centered on community healing. Developed from the partnership with LUCHA and Evergreen Real Estate Group, the three-building complex aims to provide supportive services for youth and families, provide 100% affordable housing, increase neighborhood green space, revive underutilized lots and address the rising housing costs around the 606 Trail.

The HAP community engagement that determined the neighborhood needs was achieved via a phased approached that encompassed pre-application engagement, design workshops, focused HAP workshops and zoning processes. The HAP workshops focused on addressing structural racism, community safety, health and program opportunities and access to mental health services.

Moving Forward to Promote Health and Healing

The introduction into the Healing Centered Community Development Framework allows us to develop strategies that apply healing-centered principles that build power within communities, create spaces for healing and bring self-awareness and acknowledgment of injustices. Heavily ingrained in this process of community development are the partnerships between community developers and public health professionals that allow collaborative efforts to be enacted on the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups residing in built environments that were subjected to generations of racial inequity.

Going forward, Enterprise with its partners hopes to explore how the healing-centered approach can be used to strengthen the Health Action Plan, in partnership with the community. A component of this was workshopped in the webinar’s breakout sessions. Through collaborative partnerships and community engagement, we can work to address health inequity and design neighborhoods that not only offer affordable housing but an environment that promotes health, healing and well-being.

A big thanks to Citi for supporting the full webinar series, Health Begins with Home, including:

Artist, activist, and poet, Leslé Honoré, performed an original piece, The Healers, during the event.

This blog was authored by Damarea Crain, Georgia State University Master of Public Health student.