Buffalo, New York
The day after Buffalo witnessed the largest mass shooting in its history, teams of volunteers and mental health advisors arrived at the scene, offering emotional support and distributing food.
The response was robust and fast, but there was one major problem.
“The community didn’t feel comfortable walking up the stairs to the center because they saw a large group of white people,” said Kelly Wofford, director of health justice for Erie County.
A white gunman deliberately opened fire on a predominantly black neighborhood’s only grocery store, a Tops supermarket, on a busy Saturday in May. Eleven of the 13 people shot were black, including the 10 killed. Authorities called the shooting racially motivated.
“Any other type of tragedy, like a hurricane or a flood, anyone offering resources would happily be welcome, but this was different. This tragedy had a face and a hatred for a certain group of people,” said Thomas Beauford Jr. President and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, which was one of the local community organizations on the day of the shooting.
“They completely rejected it,” Beauford said, adding, “The immediate reaction to the consultants was, ‘We need to see consultants who look like us.'”
The problem was fixed on Monday. Wofford, who grew up close to the tops, has tapped into her network to ensure more black advisers are on the ground, it’s the blacks distribute flyers on the street about available services and that Black people welcomed people to the help center.
“We’ve made sure the affected community feels comfortable seeking the services they need,” Wofford said.
Their relief efforts — and the spotlight the May 14 shooting threw on existing inequalities in the community — exemplify the role the newly formed Erie County Office of Health Equity is set to play in the community: ensuring that the health services are guaranteed are fairly distributed among disadvantaged and marginalized population groups.
There is a significant disparity between the health outcomes of white and black residents within Erie County, which became even more apparent when Covid-19 disproportionately affected black and brown communities there and across the country.
Even before the pandemic, the life expectancy of Black Buffalo residents was 12 years shorter than that of white residents, according to a report released in 2015 by the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, the most recent data available.
The Erie County Office of Health Equity was created to address these disparities. It was established by county statute in January, and funding was made possible by a large federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan, which distributed money to states, counties and cities across the country.
Erie County provided approximately $1 million of the nearly $179 million it received from the American Rescue Plan to create the Health Equity Office. It is using the remaining funds to meet a variety of needs, including economic support for small businesses, water purification infrastructure, and restoring jobs and spending that were initially cut due to the pandemic.
While health equity issues were addressed prior to the office’s creation, the law has formalized efforts and left funding behind to ensure it can work on long-term solutions. With Wofford at the helm, the office has nine staff, including two epidemiologists.
“The Office of Health Equity – which did not exist and would not have existed without the funding we received from the American Rescue Plan – immediately became an integral partner in the response to the Tops shooting on May 14 by being in In a way, the boots were on-site and the coordinator between third-party agencies and the county’s delivery of those services to the community,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
“It was unlike any experience we’ve ever had,” added Poloncarz, “and I’m very grateful that we established the Office of Health Equity because it would have made our work much more difficult without it.”
Tackling health disparities is something communities across the country are grappling with, and while the pandemic has caused illness and death for millions of people, it has also helped ignite some momentum.
State and local equal opportunity agencies are not nearly as widespread as, for example, water agencies, but they’re having a moment — partly due to the cash inflow from the federal government to help communities recover.
“The pandemic has really highlighted the gross disparities in our ability to keep people healthy across race and ethnicity,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
The group hasn’t tracked how many formal share offices have opened, but the number is growing, Freeman said. Philadelphia hired its first chief racial equity officer earlier this year.
In the past, some communities have had neither the political will nor the resources to formalize their health equity efforts, she added.
High-profile police killings of black people, most notably the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, led a number of communities to declare racism a public health crisis and laid the groundwork for some offices to open. In April 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also declared racism a serious public health threat.
Addressing health inequalities will take time and will require addressing the social determinants of health. These are the factors that contribute to a person’s health over which they have no control such as access to clean water and healthy food and other conditions in which they live, work and play that can affect their health.
“They’re really trying to create equal health opportunities for every single person in the community, regardless of their economic status, where they live, or where they work,” Freeman said said.
In mid-July, Tops grocery store reopened with mixed reactions from the community.
Without the supermarket, car-less people might not have convenient access to nutritious food. For others, it was emotionally difficult to re-enter the store.
Migdalia Lozada, a crisis adviser for the Buffalo Urban League, spent an August morning offering support to buyers. Lozada took a woman’s hand as she entered the store for the first time since the tragedy and felt the woman’s tears fall onto her arm.
The Buffalo Urban League Community Resource Center, located just two blocks from the Tops, continues to serve the traumatized neighborhood. People can go straight into the room and speak to a crisis advisor. Some people are regulars who come almost every day. Others may have been triggered by an event such as a gunfight elsewhere or movement a court case against the shooting suspect.
“We’re just trying to give the person some space in a safe, confidential place to open up,” Lozada said.
While the Buffalo Urban League’s crisis advisors had been serving the community for months, after the shooting, their leaders wanted a physical space near the Tops store. The group found an open space down the street that had once been a neighborhood bar called Pixie’s and opened a resource center there days after the tragedy. The building intentionally looks and feels much more like a local watering hole than a healthcare facility.
The center also serves as a place that connects people with other resources to address a wide range of social determinants of health such as employment, housing and education.
The Buffalo Urban League plans to work closely with the county, particularly with the new Office of Health Equity, to drive long-term change going forward.
The county The office is initially working on training people in the national mental health first aid program so the county can use counselors throughout the community — such as in Bible studies and community centers — to meet people where they may already be. A recent nationwide study found that while the proportion of US adults receiving treatment for mental health has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, people of color have less access to mental health services.
The office is also working on a survey that will show some of the issues community members want to address – it could be the high prevalence of diabetes or high blood pressure, for example.
“If you look at the social determinants of health, there are inequalities in everything, so you can pick and choose which ones you want,” Wofford said.