From the Front Lines: Detroit, Michigan

Conceived and supported by The Kresge Foundation and launched in 2009 to address health issues that deriving from in-home environmental hazards, the Advancing Safe and Healthy Homes Initiative (ASHHI) was a national program that grew from a Kresge Health Program initiative to reduce childhood lead poisoning into a comprehensive effort to address home dangers such as asthma-triggering allergens, fire hazards, substandard insulation, and weatherization; repair problems, like broken steps and railings; and neighborhood nuisances, like abandoned buildings that invite crime. The six ASHHI community sites focused their efforts on local housing units in which they intended to reduce childhood lead poisoning, asthma-related medical events, and home safety hazards through policy making, advocacy/community organizing, and legal enforcement.

A Hidden Threat Exposed

When Renee Thomas moved into her two-story home two years ago, she had no idea it posed a hidden threat to her four children. But a new city law forced her landlord to check the century-old house for lead contamination. Old, deteriorating paint had left lead dust on its windows, floors, and porch. Through a patchwork of grants and city partnerships, the contamination was cleaned up. “They kept cleaning the floors, cleaning them over and over again,” Thomas said. “It was in the windows, in the doors, and on the railing going upstairs. They replaced all of that.”

Armed with new laws, paintbrushes, and industrial vacuums, Detroit, over the past few years, has declared war on the toxic metal that has long plagued its neighborhoods. And it appears to be winning: The number of Detroit children with lead levels exceeding a newly revised federal guideline has dropped more than 70%, from about 10,000 kids to 2,900 since 2004. Experts say a new emphasis on cleanup or demolition of homes, a shrinking population, and stricter city landlord laws have spurred the improvement.

Nevertheless, the number of children with elevated lead levels in Detroit remains much higher than the national average, and low-income people of color are most at risk. More than 10% of Detroit children 6 years old and younger still exceed the lead guideline set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year. Making matters worse, federal funding for local programs has been slashed, threatening the progress made in Detroit and other cities.

Although challenges remain, the benefits of Detroit’s lead prevention work aren’t hard for residents like Renee Thomas to see. Her tidy home stands out in her working class neighborhood with its fresh paint and new porch and windows. After she moved in, she had all four children, ages 6, 8, 10, and 12, tested for lead. None had elevated levels. But she still keeps a lead prevention pamphlet handy and uses a new vacuum designed to minimize dust. “I feel much better – now they can play anywhere,” Thomas said.

Breaking the Cycle

Helping to create healthy homes for children and their families can be daunting. Reducing lead poisoning, asthma triggers, and safety hazards are tough enough to achieve, but the quest for a better living environment is often complicated by the fact that many families are not able to apply for programs due to “barriers” that often disqualify them. To help counter this situation, the CLEARCorps/Detroit “Breaking the Cycle” Work Group organized a special forum for direct service providers and community organizations.

“We find that many families are prevented from applying for vital programs that would assist their efforts to obtain, maintain, and retain a home due to the many barriers that disqualify them, such as unpaid property taxes, utility shutoffs, and scam housing deals,” said Mary Sue Schottenfels, executive director for CLEARCorps/Detroit. “Community organizations run into these barriers all of the time when working with local residents. This forum aimed to provide information on programs they can use to help families address these barriers and avoid being scammed. Available resources are often totally unknown to the families that need them the most.”

After key resources and organizations were introduced, the forum transitioned to small roundtable discussions that allowed participants to ask questions, discuss specifics, and collaborate on ideas to address identified barriers. Forum participants also received a resource binder with organized information about homebuyer education, mortgage foreclosure, property tax education and assistance, home repair programs, utility assistance, renter information, processes for obtaining correct identification, state emergency relief resources, as well as lead and healthy homes resources. To access information and materials about this program, visit CLEARCorps/Detroit’s Breaking the Cycle page.

The overwhelming majority of attendees provided positive evaluations of the event indicating that they would relay the information to the populations they serve, other agencies and service providers, community groups, schools, churches, et cetera. Of those who responded to a question about which resources were most helpful, 26% declared that all of the materials presented were helpful, while 23% favored the information on foreclosure and legal aid, 20% cited utility assistance information, and 15% found the home repair program information most helpful.

Asked about the type of information they would like to see included in future programs, several respondents noted that they would like additional health-related information.

CLEARCorps/Detroit sponsored the “Breaking the Cycle” forum with the help of a generous grant from The Kresge Foundation and in partnership with the WARM Training Center (now EcoWorks), Michigan Legal Services, Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, Central Detroit Christian CDC, RSM Lead Inspections, Stafford House, and Kids-in-Zion.