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Planting Seeds Toward a 'Healthy Chicago'

Too many folks with acute mental health problems are spending long hours, sometimes days, in the Swedish Covenant Hospital emergency room waiting for admission to a state facility.

Meanwhile, the North River neighborhood’s network of community gardens is prohibited by city ordinance from transporting essential organic compost from one site to another.

And cutbacks in funding for CeaseFire and other violence prevention programs are crimping reach-out-to-youth activities in the neighborhood.

Commissioner Bechara Choucair, M.D., of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has held a series of meetings this fall and winter with leaders of LISC Chicago's New Communities network.

Gordon Walek

Public health problems – they come in all shapes and sizes in the North River/Albany Park neighborhood. And until recently, it was difficult for community leaders here – or in any neighborhood – to explain their public health challenges to city officials in a calm, collegial setting.

But that’s exactly what’s happening this fall and winter at a series of meetings between leaders of LISC Chicago’s New Communities network and Commissioner Bechara Choucair, M.D., of the Chicago Department of Public Health

“It’s about starting a relationship … opening the door,” said Dominique Williams, the health fellow with LISC Chicago who is coordinating the meetings. All told, some 15 sit-downs with Dr. Choucair are being scheduled, she said, and the agendas are as diverse as the neighborhoods that host them. 

“Cascade” in the ER
At the Nov. 5 session held in the boardroom at Swedish Covenant, for instance, the commissioner listened intently as hospital CEO Mark Newton explained what’s happened to his emergency room following government cuts to mental health services, including the city’s recent closing of several mental health clinics.

“There’s been a cascade of events,” said Newton. He explained that state and city budget cuts for mental health have caused a spike in mentally disturbed and uninsured individuals being dropped off at the ER, where they’ve been bedded down for as long as nine days waiting for an opening at a state mental health facility. “That’s a question of morality, as to how they’re being cared for,” said Newton.

“It’s about starting a relationship … opening the door,” said Dominique Williams (center), health fellow with LISC Chicago, who is coordinating the 15 meetings in a panoply of communities around the city.

Gordon Walek

Tensions have mounted, he said, among police who pick up disturbed people on the street, ambulance drivers who are not being reimbursed for delivering them and hospital personnel struggling to provide humane care. “This is our single, most-critical issue,” Newton said.

Dr. Choucair responded that “maybe we can figure out a way” to route the uninsured to the remaining city clinics … and those on Medicaid to private, non-profit mental health centers.

Healthy Chicago partners
All the while, Dr. Choucair took notes on his slim, white digital notepad. 

He explained that the LISC-organized neighborhood sessions are an integral part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Healthy Chicago initiative launched in late summer 2011. The plan targets a dozen public health priorities – ranging from tobacco, to obesity, to teen pregnancy to HIV—and advances some 200 problem-solving strategies.

“We cannot move the needle on our own as a government agency,” Choucair said. “We have to be working with community partners, and a key strategy is working with the LISC New Communities.”

Perry Gunn, executive director of the North River Commission, a New Communities affiliate, hosted a meeting with Dr. Choucair on Nov. 5.

Gordon Walek

The LISC neighborhood network’s initial contribution to Healthy Chicago was a list of community-centered health recommendations devised by 70 local leaders from 30 organizations. The list, which included eight key strategies for healthier neighborhoods, was presented in June at a plenary meeting with Dr. Choucair and his senior staff.

He promised then to follow-up with a neighborhood-by-neighborhood tour … and has kept that promise with logistical help from Dominique Williams and the LISC network.

“The intersection between public health and community development is so critical,” Dr. Choucair said at the Swedish Covenant session. “We’ve made a commitment to LISC and its partners to move them [the report’s eight strategies] along. … But different communities have different needs, ... and these smaller meetings will help us better understand those needs and how can we be more helpful …  how can we can partner better.”

Food equity
Linda Seyler, manager of the Global Gardens refugee training farm, where immigrants this past growing season raised more than 5,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, described the psychic as well as physical health benefits when new Americans are able to grow and cook foods they enjoyed in their native lands.

When Dr. Choucair asked what the city could do to help, Seyler pointed to municipal regulations that prohibit the transport of organic waste materials from home to garden or from garden to garden.  

“The intersection between public health and community development is so critical,” Dr. Choucair said.

Gordon Walek

“You’re not allowed to take your kitchen waste to your community garden to compost it on site,” Seyler said. “If we’re going to do [organic] urban agriculture, … we have to keep feeding that soil.”

“Let me know the specifics,” said Dr. Choucair, “and we’ll work with the mayor’s office and the City Council.” 

He said Mayor Emanuel is determined to keep his campaign promise to eliminate so-called urban “food deserts.” This involves not just attracting chain supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods, he said, but promoting community gardens, farmers’ markets and kiosks, and mobile delivery such as Fresh Moves, which is adding a second converted CTA bus and, with city help, may add a third and fourth.

Crime-fighting $
Harold Rice, executive director of the Albany Park Community Center, said his organization has had success cutting the rate of gang-related violence, but lately funding for that activity has grown scarce.

“We got our [CeaseFire] funds cut from $60,000 to $30,000,” said Rice. Although the funding was later restored, Rice’s organization and others face funding insecurity due to the loss of now-expired federal stimulus grants and other grants.     

“From a safety umbrella standpoint,” Rice said, “it’s been hard to try to manage that. … We have strong relationships with some of the gang members, … but when we ask them what it would take to get them out of gangs, to stem the tide of crime, it often comes down to jobs.”

So the Center takes pride, he said, in recently placing 87 young men and women in jobs with the Garrett Popcorn chain.

Dr. Choucair congratulated that, then asked the gathered North River leaders to convey to their aldermen, who must approve the next city budget, their thoughts on the city’s CeaseFire pilot. This input will be valuable as the city considers future funding levels for CeaseFire and other public safety initiatives.

“Thank you for hosting,” said Dr. Choucair at meeting’s end to Perry Gunn, executive director of the North River Commission, a New Communities affiliate. “These meetings have been tremendously helpful.”

Another round of community meetings is being scheduled for January.

More information: Dominique Williams, LISC Chicago, 312-422-9571

To see the city's Healthy Chicago Agenda, please click here.

LISC Chicago's health work is funded in part by The Otho S. A. Sprague Memorial Institute.

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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