Boston Public Housing Residents Join Community Health Care Workforce

Posted on: December 5, 2013

A new class of 14 Resident Health Advocates graduated December 4, bringing to 120 the total number of Boston public housing residents who have been trained as specialized community health workers through an innovative partnership based at BUSPH.

Twelve years ago, in response to chronic unemployment and poor health among residents of Boston’s public housing, the Partners in Health and Housing Prevention Research Center (PHH-PRC) developed its innovative Resident Health Advocate (RHA) training program. Individuals enrolled in the program are trained as community health workers, with coursework tailored to meet the health needs of their fellow residents. Two of the trainees are then placed into 20-hour-week paid internships with the Boston Housing Authority, while the others are eligible to be hired into research projects at BU.

Many of the dozens of residents who have successfully completed the 14-week course have gone on to additional education and jobs in public health and social services.

SPH Dean Robert Meenan congratulates the new graduates and tells a story about his role as the first director of the PRC 12 years ago.

SPH Dean Robert Meenan congratulates the new graduates and tells a story about his role as the first director of the PRC 12 years ago.

“I have learned so much and met so many people as part of my networking for the benefit of my community,” said Victoria Thomas, a 2010 RHA trainee who is now an oral health advocate at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine at BU. She said the RHA program has allowed her and “many other moms (to) become empowered by the whole experience.”

The PHH-PRC, funded since 2001 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a partnership among researchers, community members and public agencies. The four partners that make up the center are BUSPH; the Community Committee for Health Promotion, representing the residents of the Boston Housing Authority’s family housing developments; the Housing Authority, which houses about 10 percent of the city’s residents; and the Boston Public Health Commission.

The PHH-PRC’s mission is to improve the health and wellbeing of residents of Boston’s public housing and reduce health disparities by engaging residents in community-centered research efforts and prevention activities.

Public housing residents are more likely to report poor overall health status than other Boston residents. They also are more likely to report ever-diagnosed hypertension and diabetes, as well as asthma, obesity, dental problems and prolonged feelings of depression. The RHA training program educates residents about these disparities, while also showing them how to advocate for the improved health of their neighbors and communities.

The RHA training program “has opened up my eyes to all the health care issues that I did not face before,” said Alexandra Perez, a member of the class of 2011, and a medical assistant at Boston Medical Center. “It has helped me learn to do community outreach and engage with other residents.”

A new class of RHAs will begin training in the fall of 2014.