Nearly a half million dollars of new federal funding will be used to expand access to critically needed health services for Boston residents who struggle with homelessness, addiction, and, too often, racism, Mayor Michelle Wu said Thursday.
“In this health care mecca of the world, in the place where patients from all around the planet come to receive care, we still see tremendous gaps ... that continue to highlight racial disparities and economic injustice as well,” said Wu.
“Patients of color receive less effective and less compassionate care than white patients,” she said.
Wu joined Representative Ayanna Pressley and health leaders from across the city to share details on how the first-of-its-kind $493,000 grant will be spent. The funding, distributed over a period of three years, was awarded last month under the Biden administration’s new Community-Driven Approaches to Address Factors Contributing to Structural Racism in Public Health initiative. The initiative is modeled on provisions of a bill, the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act, co-sponsored by Pressley.
A cornerstone of Boston’s plan will be to bolster the intensive services it launched last year in its effort to address the crisis of people living in tents and using drugs in the Mass. and Cass area of the city.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the city’s commissioner of public health, said data the city has collected show that more than half of the roughly 420 individuals initially relocated from Mass. and Cass to so-called low-threshold housing are people of color. City leaders have stressed that low-threshold housing, where those seeking shelter do not need to be sober to get mental health treatment, addiction services, and other support, is an effective way to address homelessness by putting housing first.
“We’re going to use this grant to ensure that there’s equity in how we proceed with this particular initiative ... as well as other work that we’re doing around the city,” Ojikutu said.
“We’re going to hire people who are of color, who have cultural and structural competency and linguistic concordance with providers,” she said.
“We’re going to ensure community engagement because this doesn’t just affect the Mass. and Cass area, this affects the communities all around Boston,” she added.
Other health care leaders in Boston who spoke at the event said the money is welcome and sorely needed across the city.
Dr. Charles Anderson, president and chief executive of the Dimock Center, said his 9-acre health center campus in Roxbury includes 39 nonhospital detox beds, which accounts for 30 percent of such beds in the city.
But he said there are roughly 50,000 people every year in Massachusetts, including about 5,000 in Boston, who are seeking such services.
“We need to add capacity in communities where there are individuals who want to receive services in their community, because that’s where they feel safe and protected,” Anderson said.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts saw a 69 percent increase in deaths from opioid overdoses among Black men, one of the data points discussed Thursday that Pressley said she found most alarming.
She said the pandemic laid bare every inequity, every disparity, every racial injustice and then worsened them.
“We have to ask ourselves the deeper, more important questions: What are we going to do about it?” Pressley said.
She is co-sponsoring a bill, the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act, that would require the federal government to begin actively developing antiracist health policy, including conducting research and collecting data on the public health impact of systemic racism.
“Our response cannot be just to default to a pre-pandemic, unjust status quo. Because that would be to be complicit in those inequities and disparities that have persisted for so long, and have been exacerbated,” she said.
“And so we have to be legislatively, and from an appropriations and budgetary standpoint, disruptive and actively antiracist. And that’s true across all policies, but including, and especially public health.”