Community health worker Angel Sanders vividly recalls what her client Sonya Hughes said when she helped her apply for housing assistance.  

“I’m gonna thank God in advance,” Hughes told Sanders at her office housed at the Westside Health Authority, a nonprofit organization that provides social services to West Side residents. “And it worked.”  

One month later, around May, Hughes, a lifelong West Sider, moved into an apartment, coincidentally located “right up the street” from Sanders’ home.  

“Sometimes I got choked up because I still can’t believe my prayer was answered,” Hughes said.  

Hughes’s case is not unique. West Side residents face multiple barriers to housing, healthcare, and other basic necessities most people take for granted. That’s where Westside Health Authority comes in. For 30 years, it has offered community health services, employment support, youth mentoring, reentry services and other programs to improve West Siders’ quality of life.  

It is part of a state-funded initiative called Wellness West that places trained community health workers in holistic health care. It also connects healthcare patients to social services providers. Unlike medical staff, community health workers help clients like Hughes navigate health systems and identify barriers that impede their ability to have the health outcomes they desire. 

Its goal is to address “health disparities by assessing social drivers of health that contribute to patients improving their wellness,” said Misty Drake, executive director of Wellness West. It also aims to improve health care services by employing community health workers who are part of the community they serve – and understand their culture and needs.  

 On the West Side, systemic inequity and historic disinvestment has long contributed to diminished health: Data shows that about 50% of health habits are impacted by social drivers, Drake pointed out. For example, there is a 12-year gap in life expectancy between a person who lives in Chicago’s Loop and their counterpart on the West Side, according to a 2021 report by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.  

Research by the state agency also found that mental illnesses, substance use disorders and certain chronic illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases cause the most frequent and resource-intensive hospitalizations on the West Side. 

All these illnesses can be treated early through outpatient care, reducing the risk for hospitalization or severe complications. Yet socio-economic, cultural and environmental barriers exist. 

To overcome these barriers, Wellness West’s model of care was created, with support of the Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus. The collaborative serves residents of 10 West Side ZIP codes. It trains, places and funds community health workers who work in existing health care centers and community organizations. Community health care workers are assigned to clients to assess their health and barriers to health. Then they help them address these barriers through programs and services offered by community health centers, mental clinics, hospitals and community-based organizations in the Wellness West network.  

Unraveling the complexities of health 

For Hughes, having a community health worker means “having a burden lifted off” at a time when she was ready to “tap out.”  

Despite being a lifelong West Side resident, Hughes heard about Westside Health Authority for the first time only this year after various failed attempts at getting housing assistance, commonly known as Section 8 housing. At first, she did not arrive to Westside Health Authority simply searching for housing. She approached the organization while searching for help in navigating her health and was assigned to a community health worker. 

Sanders, who works for Westside Health Authority. has helped Hughes apply to food assistance benefits, setup medical checkups and other preventive care, get transportation assistance and ultimately, get housed.  

“Anything that I need for me to be successful in my health and prosperity, my peace of mind, my comfort, I found it in this place,” Hughes said. 

She was the first of Sanders’ clients to be selected for housing assistance from a large pool of applicants she assists.  

“What it means for me is stability, peace and comfort,” Hughes, who has experienced homelessness said. For several months, she went “from place to place” and spent time “in the streets” without having a permanent place to call home. She also takes care of her two nieces, 6 and 10 while their parents struggle with substance use disorder, a health issue she is also familiar with.  

“Homelessness has always been one of my biggest battles and having shelter has been one of my biggest desires,” she said. “When you have that stability, it makes everything that you go through a little bit easier because you have a place to rest.”  

Renee Washington, another client, found Wellness West after seeking assistance for a medical condition caused by a workplace accident. Washington was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after colliding with an electric door at her workplace around 5 years ago. The injury affected her memory and mobility, making impossible daily tasks she used to do, like driving or getting ready to leave her house.  

“Being 50, there was never a point in my life in which you could have told me that I would not be able to take care of myself,” Washington said.  

 “When I contacted Westside Health Authority, I didn’t know if I would qualify for the program because there were no programs that would take me without a substance abuse issue or without a mental health issue,” she said.  

In her experience, “health is wealth” that extends beyond the medical community. Her injuries have affected other areas of her life, including her ability to perform any kind of job, making her realize she needed assistance outside hospital walls. Washington said Sanders listened to her and understood her issues.  

“Even now when I try and communicate to people, sometimes I stutter, sometimes my speech gets slurred and it can be very embarrassing,” Washington said. 

But she felt relieved when Sanders told her: “We’re going to help you with this, I understand” — words Washington had not heard in a long time.  

With her help, Washington has received food assistance, housing assistance and transportation assistance, needs that became critical when her ability to work was impaired while navigating a complex health condition.  

 “You can’t buy food because you have to pay for transportation to go to a doctor’s appointment you can’t miss; you have to make real life choices,” she said. 

Sanders also helped her renew her medical insurance paperwork and assisted Washington in applying for a job she hopes to get soon.  

Both of her clients credit her for her ability to listen and to communicate with empathy, honesty and integrity. 

“Even if she has to tell you the truth and it’s not something that you want to hear, she’s positive and honest about it,” Washington said. “It makes a difference because a lot of times when you need help, what you tend to lose is dignity.” 

Building a pipeline of health workers who understand community needs  

Sanders is a lifelong Austin resident, like many of her clients. She holds a master’ s degree in communications and has always loved to help people, she said. Sanders was interested in pursuing a career in media, but later found out about the opportunity to be a community health care worker.  

“I fit the criteria because it said you just needed to know about the West Side and I lived here my whole life,” she said. While it seems simple, that has given her an advantage when navigating difficult clients. Wellness West knows “having someone who looks like you, who speaks the same language and is culturally from where you are is important” in improving health care in underserved communities, Drake said.  

“There is a lot of trauma out on the West side, a lot of unhealed trauma…” Sanders said. “So it’s good to just know ‘this is not a bad person, they just went through some things.’” 

Sanders also understands her patients concerns, beliefs and practices, without judgment, helping her “clients” overcome practices that don’t benefit their health.  

Some clients believe they should not share “their business” with anyone and are reluctant to share their health history. Some have the habit of taking home-remedies instead of seeking medical care. Others are afraid of going to the doctor because of past traumatic experiences in the medical system.  

“I share with them I get scared too,” Sanders said. “I hate getting my blood drawn, I still want to hold somebody in there, but it’s better to know.” 

Her role has also led her to know more about her community and unmet needs.  

“My family also has diabetes and all type of other illnesses and conditions and I don’t want that for me or my future generations to come,” she said. 

 “It’s a way of breaking generational curses, actually. And health is more than being sick. It’s well-being.” 

Challenging future 

Overturning long-standing health disparities requires systemic changes and infrastructure investments, changes that don’t happen overnight.  

Community health workers are tasked with challenges that can surpass available resources, especially when it comes to homelessness. Out of 97 clients, at least 70 of them need housing Sanders said.  

“I have clients that are sleeping in parks. I have so many different clients that need housing, they have babies…” Sanders said, adding she goes out of her way to find housing opportunities for applicants who are not selected for housing assistance. “It’s overwhelming but fulfilling when I help them.”  

Community health workers often are also navigating their own health barriers. To support community health workers, Wellness West has sought additional funding opportunities to create workforce development funds that can help them cover unmet needs.  

Attracting and retaining community health workers is another challenge faced by the health collaborative, Drake said. Wellness West reimburses network providers a flat fee for community health workers they employ, but initially an $18.50 per hour minimum salary was not enough to attract workers, so an increase was required.  

Wellness West is funded by a three-year state grant, awarded in 2021 a period that is not enough to overturn years of systemic disinvestment. To continue this model of care, the nonprofit is seeking support from state representatives and health authorities, Drake said.  

“Providers have to be incentivized to reduce health disparities,” Drake said. “What Wellness West does, it’s a long-term game.” 

To contact Westside Health Authority, call (773) 378-1878 or visit their office on 5417 W Division St.