Medically Underserved Benton Harbor Gets a Med Center, with Social Services, in the Center of Downtown

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.— In the heart of this small city, a place opened in early November where people can get flu shots, or home water filters, or masks and hand sanitizer to guard against the coronavirus. Clients can also receive wellness screenings, including for blood pressure and cholesterol checks, and healthy-living advice from nurses and health educators if their “numbers” aren’t looking good. They can get connected with mental health counseling, a need that is more pressing during the pandemic, or sign up for medical insurance. And social service navigators can guide clients to other sources for food, medical care and legal navigators.

And it is all free of charge.

It is the Center for Better Health (https://www.shlcenterforbetterhealth.org). The center, at 100 W. Main St., opened Nov. 2. Staff members describe it as a “one-stop-shop” kind of place because of its holistic approach. Here, health goes beyond tending the physical body in a clinical setting to encompass things a person needs to live a healthy life. That could mean, for example, finding out about a food pantry, or connecting with a lawyer who will help keep a family from being evicted from its apartment, or having utilities restored, or turning to a mental health counselor. And, because of the population it is serving, all the mental health counselors are people of color.

Even Hot Spots Offered

A $1.2 million grant from the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities jump-started the center, funding it to the end of the year. As part of the center’s work, COVID-19 testing is offered at the Benton Harbor High School parking lot. Services to the community even include wi-fi hot spots to support Benton Harbor High School students with virtual learning and school supplies.

The grant is funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. Residents of Benton Harbor and adjoining neighborhoods in the 49022 ZIP code are intended as the primary beneficiaries. Those neighborhoods are largely African-American. Anyone, however, can come to the center if they need help. The COVID-19 testing at the high school is drawing people from a large geographic area of southwest Michigan beyond 49022.

Data about the Center for Better Health and the COVID-19 testing are being made available to the public through this dashboardThe dashboard is described as a hub of information that will be updated weekly. Data sets include such information as the number of total COVID-19 tests and number of people testing positive; the categories of services requested at the center, ranked in order of requests; the age ranges, race and gender of people coming to the center; and a map of where surveys have been distributed to residents.

No Hospital for Years

Staff members Margaret Clayborn (left) and Bertha (Carson) King

The grant recipient and lead entity for the Center for Better Health is Spectrum Health Lakeland. It is the hospital system that serves almost all of Berrien County.  Lakeland is partnering with the Berrien County Health Department to operate the center, and InterCare Community Health Network for testing.

Lakeland’s Executive Board of Directors in late November allocated financial resources to extend the life of the center beyond its original Dec 30th end date. Plans for how it will continue are underway.

Lakeland’s main hospital is located in St. Joseph, across the St. Joseph River from Benton Harbor. The residents of Benton Harbor have not had a full-fledged hospital in their town for years, although there are medical and mental health facilities in Benton Township, just outside Benton Harbor.

Building a Case for the Long Term

Kyndall McCoy, MSW, the facilities and operations administrator for the Center for Better Health, gave me a tour of the center and answered questions on a morning in mid-November before it opened to clients for the day. The center had been open two weeks, and McCoy said she had noticed “great energy” and enthusiasm among clients for what it was offering. Even clients who had no immediate need for the center’s services were asking for more information and saying they would pass the word to other people, she said. [Link to story, “He’s a True Believer in the Center.”]

McCoy, who grew up in Benton Harbor, said the existence of the center itself is helping reinforce Lakeland’s commitment to health equity and also helping to “build a case of why Spectrum Health needs to be in Benton Harbor for the long term.”

In June, the Spectrum Health Lakeland Board of Directors approved an expanded strategy for health equity in the communities the health system serves. Lakeland committed the investment income from a $50 million capital fund, expected to generate $20-25 million over 10 years, as part of an overall $100 million health equity effort for the decade.

Much Collaboration, Cross-Fertilization

McCoy works for Spectrum Health Lakeland’s Population Health Department, which is headed by Lynn Todman, PhD, the hospital system’s vice president of health equity. Todman wrote the grant application for the center, with help from Corey Smith, PhD. [Link to story, “Flipping the Questions by Seeking What’s Good in the Community.”]

Smith is an evaluation consultant, and one of the key people, along with McCoy and others, who are helping direct a project Todman created and is leading, Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism. https://www.spectrumhealthlakeland.org/population-health/get-involved/community-grand-rounds The ongoing project provides expert speakers on how racism affects health and offers area residents small-group discussions across the racial divide called Brave Talks.

Community Grand Rounds (CGR) is nearing the end of its third year. It has a long-term goal of helping close the racialized health disparities between residents of the 49022 ZIP code and other communities in Berrien County. One alarming fact among many: There is a 19-year life expectancy gap between one census tract in the Benton Harbor area and one across the St. Joseph river near Stevensville. See the “Death Gap” segment of this infographic: https://lynntodman.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/New-infographic-0916-2.png

“The Center exemplifies the power of collaboration. In addition to the Berrien County Health Department and InterCare Community Health partners include the Berrien County Mental Health Authority, the Public Defender’s Office, Legal Aid of Southwest Michigan, and many others.”– Lynn Todman

Food — or Help with a Landlord Problem

Margaret Clayborn, a co-site manager and resource navigator at the center, said food was a prime need of clients. She cited the case of one woman who has 11 people in her household but was out of food. Some people have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus and had applied for, but not yet received, food help through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Clayborn noted in mid-November. The center’s staff connects people with food pantries, food banks or food giveaway events. Like some other staff at the center, Clayborn is a Lakeland employee who has been reassigned to work full- or part-time at the center.

Clayborn said one strength of the Center for Better Health is it offers many services in one place. She mentioned Chokwe Pitchford, the legal aid navigator, who connects people with a wide range of legal help. A person might, for example, need help avoiding an eviction.

Someone with little income and no idea of where to get legal advice would have no opportunity otherwise to get the help Pitchford provides, she said. “There’s no way they would be able to afford a lawyer to take care of that.”

Beyond Rhetoric to Real Help

Bertha (Carson) King, a co-site manager at the center, said, “This center is a part of that trust-building for people who are activists in the community and who know what the needs are. Having this center is proof that we listen to them and that we are willing to go beyond just rhetoric. It’s starting to ‘walk the talk’ and to be able to build on what Spectrum Health Lakeland, and the Berrien County Health Department, are trying to accomplish during this pandemic.”

King, a longtime area resident, is one of the community influencers who early in the spring used social media to get the word to residents of the 49022 ZIP code about taking precautions against the coronavirus. Those same people are now spreading the word about the Center for Better Health.

People are happy — in the heart of “their own community” — to be able to come to the center and face little bureaucracy and no financial pressure during a time of pandemic and receive real resources and referrals, King said. “People can feel comfortable expressing their needs, and then having those needs met in a timely manner” by staff members who are known to them and are mostly from the same community.

“I think the team here is committed to ensuring that people (in the community) feel a sense of ownership with this center,” King said.