Students bring hope to public-housing communities

In some of San Francisco's most distressed public-housing sites, residents live in dilapidated accommodations, violence is commonplace and unemployment rates are high. While conditions are stark, they are not hopeless: HOPE SF, a project aimed to revitalize the city's public housing, is making changes -- and SF State is playing an important role.

(From left to right) Jessica Wolin, Mayor Ed Lee and Cynthia Gomez stand next to each other.

Jessica Wolin (from left), Mayor Ed Lee and Cynthia Gomez discussed SF State's HOPE SF collaboration at a leadership committee meeting last year.

"These communities have largely been forgotten, even as San Francisco experiences economic growth," said Jessica Wolin, who leads the University's HOPE SF efforts. "These are the sites of some of the starkest inequities in this city."

Since November 2011, SF State has partnered with HOPE SF, led by the mayor's office and the San Francisco Housing Authority. To date, 80 master of public health (MPH) students have collaborated with community members to understand the biggest threats to residents' physical and mental well-being and find ways to address those challenges by building on existing strengths. The peer health leadership program initiated in 2013 based on students' recommendations has been made into a permanent fixture with funding from the San Francisco Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, and recent SF State graduates have been hired to manage two of the four sites.

Alum Emily Claassen, who oversees the program at the Sunnydale housing site, is proud of what their peer-leadership program has accomplished so far -- creating fitness and nutrition classes, providing pest management toolkits -- all facilitated by public housing residents. "There is a lot of distrust among members of the communities about new people coming in, but HOPE SF is doing things differently, and that is exciting," Claassen said.

This semester, a group of SF State MPH students are leading a collaborative research project with a new focus: art as a vehicle for healing. Working with residents and a professional artist, students are assessing how art can play a role in community transformation at the HOPE SF public housing sites -- while participants create art of their own.

SF State has also established a physical home for the University's HOPE SF efforts. In spring 2014, the HOPE SF Learning Center was created within the Health Equity Institute (HEI) as a knowledge hub for the myriad evaluation and analysis projects. Student Sophia Simon-Ortiz, who participated in the first community assessment, works at the center and plans to pursue a career in the field after graduating in May.

"Access to safe housing is a key health issue, but people don't always think of it that way," Simon-Ortiz said. "People have a lot of stereotypes about public housing, especially when they don't have any connection to it. Understanding that everyone just wants to thrive and feel safe and healthy in their living situation is important, and it is something everyone should care about."

The passion that past and current students like Claassen and Simon-Ortiz have brought to the University's HOPE SF efforts has been the key factor to success, said Wolin, associate director for community practice at the HEI and clinical faculty in the Department of Health Education. "Many of the students reflect the populations we are working with," Wolin said. "Some of them have grown up in public housing. They care deeply about San Francisco and its residents. It's who the students are as people and their passion that make this partnership effective."

The collaboration also thrives due to the nature of SF State, the HEI and the Department of Health Education as institutions, said Cynthia Gomez, the HEI's director. "We have a tradition of looking at injustice and inequity, so we aren't focused just on medical issues -- we are really looking at the broader predictors of poor health outcomes. What happens to people who live in a chronically traumatic environment, and what can be done to intervene?" Gomez said. "People often bring solutions to communities that don't belong to that community, but with HOPE SF we are building it with residents from the ground up."

Gomez believes this framework -- partnering with an academic institution and working closely with residents -- will prove to be an effective model for similar projects across the country. Most efforts to improve public housing focus on redevelopment rather than community engagement, she said. While it is too early to judge, she thinks the HOPE SF model will achieve greater long-term success.

President Les Wong was recently made part of HOPE SF's executive leadership in recognition of the University's commitment to the project, which Wolin sees extending far into the future.

"It took 60 years or more to create the problems that exist in these communities, and it's naïve of us to think that this situation can get fixed in a short amount of time," said Wolin, who was nominated by SF State for the Jefferson Award for Public Service for her HOPE SF leadership. "To undo years of racism, neglect and poverty takes a monumental effort. I'm proud of the progress we've made, but there's so much more work to be done."

-- Beth Tagawa