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Public housing's health alarm

Residents more likely to fall ill, face medical issues: report

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Lesley McLellan, a Manitoba Housing tenant at the 185 Smith St. tower, says many fellow residents struggle with mobility issues.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Lesley McLellan, a Manitoba Housing tenant at the 185 Smith St. tower, says many fellow residents struggle with mobility issues. Photo Store

The bedbugs that plagued the Smith Street tower are mostly gone. The apartments are getting a facelift and programs such as the meal service and the foot-care clinic are really helping the building's aging residents.

But at least half the people who live in the Manitoba Housing tower smoke. Diabetes is common, and there's frequent chatter about the difficulty of finding a family doctor.

"A lot of people here use wheelchairs, walkers or canes or crutches," said Lesley McLellan, who sits on the tower's resident advisory committee and knows nearly all her neighbours. "They've gone through a lot in life, and the struggles they've gone through affect them."

What might help, she said, is a few more health services located right in the tower, perhaps a mini-Access centre like the primary-care hubs the province has opened around the city. The 370-unit tower has the space, and it's just a few blocks from several other Manitoba Housing complexes whose residents could also use some intensive, targeted health services. Even an on-site addiction program might help chronic alcoholics better manage their disease, said McLellan.

Giving Manitoba Housing residents better, more integrated health and social services is one recommendation in a new report released Wednesday that quantifies, for the first time, just how sick residents of social housing are. The Manitoba Health Policy Centre looked at a decade's worth of health records belonging to the roughly 31,000 Manitobans who live in Manitoba Housing and found they were twice as likely to die young, have diabetes or suffer from a respiratory illness. When compared with the rest of the population, Manitoba Housing residents were four times as likely to commit suicide and five times as likely to suffer from schizophrenia. Fewer toddlers had all the proper immunizations, fewer women had mammograms and pap smears, and more teens got pregnant.

"I think the surprises for me were primarily the degree of disparity," said Mark Smith, the lead researcher from the University of Manitoba on the project. "The effect of poverty was a real eye-opener for me."

In most cases, poverty is the biggest indicator of poor health for those in Manitoba Housing, though research suggests safe and affordable housing ought to help reverse that trend.

It may have for Howard Anderson, who moved into an apartment at 185 Smith St. from a rooming house five years ago.

"There was hardly any water, any heat," said the 52-year-old while sitting on a ledge outside the apartment tower. "Here, I have my own washroom."

Anderson has a bum knee from years of standing stationary at his job in a car-parts plant, though he can walk as far as Cityplace with his cane. Like many residents in the tower, he smokes.

But he has good blood pressure, no diabetes and few other ailments, unlike many of his neighbours. "A lot of people pass away in here," he said.

When residents of social housing were compared with other low-income Manitobans, the health outcomes were largely the same. The exception was respiratory illnesses such as emphysema and bronchitis. People in Manitoba Housing had higher rates of respiratory problems than other poor Manitobans, which suggests something is amiss --higher smoking rates, overcrowding, poor indoor air quality -- in the towers and townhomes run by the province.

The province has launched or is about to launch non-smoking pilot programs at seven Manitoba Housing complexes, including ones that are undergoing a total renovation.

Smith said Manitoba Housing residents are, in some ways, an easy group of low-income people to target with intensive programs that could shrink the health gap between rich and poor, and address the gamut of education and employment needs that also affect health outcomes.

Housing Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross says much of that is happening. The NorWest Access centre is set up to serve the Gilbert Park social housing complex right next door, and Mount Carmel Clinic does the same for Lord Selkirk Park.

And the province is focusing heavily on education and employment programs to help lift social housing residents out of poverty.

"We know this is something we need to continue to work on."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 6:33 AM CDT: adds photo

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