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Just in case you weren’t sure whether housing is a public health issue, spend a few moments talking with Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, MPH ’93, about the work of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation and any lingering doubts will disappear.
“There is a glut of housing for people who are at a comfortable economic level, and not nearly enough for what 80 percent of the population can afford,” Ibrahim notes. “That means many people are choosing between the streets and uninhabitable slum housing. And when people understand they have no better place to go, they often stay under a roof regardless of the fact that the housing is causing their family to become ill.”
The health concerns of substandard housing are widespread, Ibrahim says. Inappropriate moisture in the homes can produce mold, mildew and the proliferation of vermin, all of which can trigger problems with asthma. In units built before the 1978 federal ban on lead paint, the moisture can pose serious health risks for young children and pregnant women. Mental health problems resulting from residents living in overcrowded conditions, or being harassed and threatened with eviction under difficult housing circumstances, are common. There are sanitation issues – open running sewage, bursting pipes. Many families endure periods without hot water; others live with broken windows that don’t get repaired, and without heat in the winter.
Since joining Esperanza in 1995 – initially as its founding director of health programs, and since 2006 as executive director – Ibrahim has helped to broaden the organization’s mission beyond its original focus on quality affordable housing. Esperanza partners with the low-income families along the Figueroa Corridor neighborhood of South Los Angeles, as well as with other organizations, to help fight poverty and the problems that spring from it. The nonprofit organization now has five program areas – housing, health, economic development, arts and culture enrichment, and education. “We consider these fundamental pillars of what makes a healthy community,” says Ibrahim. “And we use these program areas – and indeed everything we do – for the purpose of developing relationships with families and individuals in the community.”
At the heart of Esperanza’s work is the Community Health Promoters Program designed by Ibrahim shortly after she arrived. The program has trained nearly 400 community members as bilingual promotores – equipping them with skills to improve the health of families while preparing them for employment opportunities in health and social-service fields. “The majority of our graduates remain engaged with our organization on many levels,” says Ibrahim. “Their children have gone to college. Many have opened their own businesses, and many are homeowners.” Beyond the personal successes, the program’s graduates have been among the most active members of the community, Ibrahim notes, mobilizing other residents on a host of health, human rights and social justice issues.
The promotora concept was far less common in 1995, when Ibrahim was brought to Esperanza based in part on work she had been doing in the Middle East in women’s health and economic development. “While there, I learned that when you want to make progressive change in a community your greatest resource is the community-based expertise,” says Ibrahim. “It’s been a privilege to be doing that type of meaningful and lasting community-building in Los Angeles, as part of an organization that believes in digging deep community roots to make a measurable impact on families.”
Esperanza Community Housing Corporation