NEIGHBOURHOODS: A Code Red Project

Healthy neighbourhoods, healthy neighbours

There are high hopes for an ambitious city plan that aims to close the gap on health and education disparities between wealthy and less affluent areas of Hamilton.

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By TERI PECOSKIE
Hamilton Spectator

Like all good things, it takes time to build healthy neighbourhoods.

Just ask Paul Johnson.

“It’s going to be a long ride,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but we’re really excited about a few things.”

Johnson is tucked into a corner table at Mulberry Street Coffee House in Jamesville — one of nearly a dozen priority neighbourhoods at the centre of the city’s community improvement plan. He’s there for the dark roast and to dish about the ambitious project two years in.

The Neighbourhood Action Strategy is Hamilton’s response to The Spectator’s landmark Code Red series, which highlighted strong connections between health and wealth at the level of individual neighbourhoods.

The disparities it uncovered, such as a 21-year gap in life expectancy between certain inner city and suburban areas, were shocking — particularly in a city with a major medical school and top teaching hospitals, in a country with universal, publicly funded health care.

It also found:

Significant differences in the rates of adults without a high school or post-secondary diploma/degree between the lower inner city and elsewhere.

A massive divide in the rates of people living below the poverty line in the former City of Hamilton and those in the suburbs.

One inner city neighbourhood where the rate of emergency room visits was 13 times higher than that in a more affluent neighbourhood in Flamborough.

The goal of the action strategy is to help close these types of gaps — but not through a top-down approach. Rather, it empowers residents to identify challenges and develop solutions that are targeted to each area’s unique needs.

“We don’t do it for them,” says Johnson, the city’s director of neighbourhood development strategies. “The whole exercise is that residents sit at the table alongside councillors, alongside staff with really technical knowledge, and we work through the issues together.”

So far, 11 neighbourhoods are engaged in the initiative — Beasley, Keith, Rolston, Gibson and Landsdale, Stinson, Sherman, Crown Point, McQuesten, Riverdale, Davis Creek and Jamesville.

With the exception of Rolston, a quiet hub nestled on the west Mountain (also the only Mountain neighbourhood in this project), resident teams have all submitted plans endorsed by a city committee that list assets and actions — everything from community gardens to cancer screening programs — that aim to improve the health and well-being of the folks living within those bounds.

In Sherman, for instance, which spans the lower city from roughly Wentworth to Gage, residents launched a free bi-monthly newsletter to create awareness about local issues and events. The paper is hand-delivered to every business and home in the area — pockets of which have poverty rates double the city average.

In Riverdale, about 10 kilometres due east, team members are working with St. Matthew’s House, a non-profit organization, to establish a new food bank for east Hamilton. Food security was identified as a key obstacle for neighbourhood residents, many of whom are not Canadian born.

The strategy works, says Joanne Aleman, because it allows these voices to be heard.

“It’s important that laws don’t just come down, the money doesn’t just come down,” says the Riverdale planning team co-chair. “You also have to have reports and suggestions that go up.

“Otherwise the government will make its decisions without really understanding what people need and want.”

Collectively, the teams have identified 421 unique actions — almost half of which are either under way or complete. The rest are expected to be initiated within three years.

That said, the action plans are just one component of the strategy. A handful of community developers hired to liaise between the city and neighbourhoods also play an important role.

“Their job is really to go in and help,” says Suzanne Brown, manager of neighbourhood development strategies. “We couldn’t do the work we do without them.”

On top of providing expertise around community engagement, one of the key responsibilities of the developers is to build relationships and trust — something McMaster University’s Jim Dunn says is essential to the strategy’s success.

He’d know. Dunn, an expert in population health, is conducting a multi-year study on the effectiveness of the project. Already, he and his team have exceeded their target of surveying 2,100 residents across the neighbourhoods involved.

“It’s mainly a trust-building exercise,” he says. “If you think about it from the perspective of the residents in those neighbourhoods, all of their interactions with formal authority, probably for generations, have been through a deficit model.

“It’s probably the first time anyone has come to them and said, ‘what’s important to you?'”

Johnson agrees.

“I don’t think people were prepared to sit down with a bunch of strangers from institutions to talk about low birth weights, smoking, cancer,” he says. “We need to talk about deep stuff at some point, but once that trust starts to build a little bit more.

“It’s going up,” Johnson adds. “It has its up and down days … but it’s going in the right direction.”

To date, around $856,000 of the $2 million allotted to the strategy by council has either been doled out or set aside to help the groups implement their plans. But that’s just a portion of the overall investment.

Johnson’s office has also successfully used the funds to leverage some $4.7 million in investments from other government partners and agencies.

Take the Hamilton Community Foundation. Last year, the organization awarded 40 neighbourhood grants worth more than $400,000 — and that’s on top of the $300,000 it contributed to funding the community developers.

“I think we’re encouraged,” says HCF president and CEO Terry Cooke when asked for his thoughts on the strategy rollout. “I think the next real piece will be how do we, how does the city, how do the key stakeholders make sure that we’re aligning the resources over the long term to make sure the plans are moving ahead.”

That’s no small task for Johnson and his staff, particularly since some of the actions, such as improving access to the Canada Learning Bond, won’t come to fruition for a decade or more. And the strategy’s lengthy nature isn’t the only challenge.

With the municipal election looming, there’s also the matter of keeping up momentum with at least a few new faces around the council table. On top of that, says Brown, the strategies’ manager, it’s essentially a new way of doing business.

“This multi-stakeholder, residents, funders, city staff sitting at the same table and creating things together — it’s hard for everybody,” she admits. “It’s not traditional and people don’t sort of get it initially.”

That being said, neither she nor Johnson, the development director, are discouraged. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“We’re two years into these plans,” Johnson says. “I can see some real potential and opportunity.

“I think there are some pieces that we should be celebrating and we should blow our own horn.”

Key programs

In addition to hundreds of hyper-local projects, the strategy also supports broader initiatives that span several neighbourhoods. Here’s a snapshot of some of those successful programs:

Canada Learning Bond

The Neighbourhood Action Strategy has partnered with all levels of government, Ontario Works, major financial institutions, and local programs and agencies to increase awareness and uptake of this federal grant for low-income parents. So far, 92 children have registered for the benefit, along with Social Insurance Numbers, bank accounts and other prerequisites, at a trio of pop-up events in Rolston, Davis Creek and Gibson and Landsdale this summer.

Neighbourhood Home Improvement Program

Now in its second year, this job creation and home renovation program provides opportunities for 21 unemployed job seekers to build skills, obtain work experience and increase their odds of gaining long-term employment. Under the direction of the Threshold School of Building, participants repair owner-occupied homes in priority neighbourhoods. So far, more than 80 per cent of them have gone on to find full-time jobs or enrol in post-secondary programs.

Neighbourhood Leadership Institute

Funded by the Hamilton Community Foundation, the institute provides residents with leadership training and hands-on experience growing locally developed projects. This year, 24 participants successfully completed the 10-day program and received a Mohawk College credit for their work.

Residents on the rise

A group of marketing and media experts has partnered with the city, First Ontario Centre and Mohawk College on a project to raise the profile of Hamilton’s priority neighbourhoods.

Dubbed Neighbourhoods Rising, the initiative hinges on the creation of an online portal featuring short documentaries, maps, shopping guides and other info about each of five areas — Beasley, Jamesville, Sherman, Keith and Gibson and Landsdale. It will also include a social media component that highlights ideas and impressions of neighbourhood residents and visitors.

The goal is to build civic pride and morale across Hamilton, says Jeff Martin of Quorum Communications — one of the project partners. “We deserve it,” he adds.

Martin expects the initiative, which will eventually expand to include all 11 neighbourhoods involved in the city’s community improvement strategy — if not more — to launch early next year.

About our project

Residents are at the heart of Hamilton’s Neighbourhood Action Strategy, so who better to talk to about the initiative than them? Throughout the summer, The the course of the next 10 days in our newspaper and online atthespec.com.

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