Climate Change Is Inevitable, but Community Resiliency Can Be Too

April is a busy month for mental health awareness: National Minority Health Month, Alcohol Awareness Month and Stress Awareness Month. When you add in Earth Day, this is a good time to remember that stewardship of the planet goes hand in hand with safeguarding mental health. Afterall, clean air and water, safe neighborhoods and intact social networks are part of the social determinants of health. But when they are compromised or destroyed by Mother Nature, it can cripple a community’s ability to cope. This can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and self-medication through substance use.

Communities of color are most vulnerable to the effects of the 21st century’s biggest challenge – climate change. With fewer resources and systemic racism in post-disaster recovery, they disproportionately suffer from injustices brought on by depleting droughts, intense storms, destructive wildfires and catastrophic flooding.

Environmental Justice is Racial Justice

Junee Kim knows this all too well. She is a high school student in Montgomery County, MD, and a climate activist with the BIPOC Green New Deal Internship program.

“One of our environmental goals is to hold the school district accountable to their commitment to electric buses, but they have drifted away from that by buying more diesel ones,” said Junee, a sophomore at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, MD. When asked what motivates her, “I’m worried for my generation and the ones after us,” she explains. “Many of my peers are stressed about climate change, but there isn’t a whole lot of awareness of how climate change impacts mental health and how to deal with it.”

Junee describes climate change as especially scary for people who are underprivileged and people of color because they are the ones most affected. “Not only will Earth deteriorate, but the gap between ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots’ will continue to widen.”

If there was one silver lining brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was the urgency to address the racial disparities and social injustice brought on by climate change and natural disasters. Research continues to show that non-white neighborhoods are more likely to be impacted by flooding, as experienced by Black and Hispanic communities during Katrina and later by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Elevated temperatures from global warming also highlight the struggles of low-income, intercity neighborhoods, which are mostly inhabited by people of color. These areas are often trapped in “heat islands” where temperatures are much higher than surrounding areas with more green space. Residents of these neighborhoods are less likely to have an air-conditioner or a car that they can take to a “cool zone” compared to a predominantly white neighborhood. Exposure to such intense heat increases the risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heart attacks. And alcohol, drugs, and heat just don’t mix; rather, they exasperate the underlying physical conditions or lead to new ones.

The Intersection of Climate Change, Mental Health, and Substance Use

The trauma caused by Katrina caused many of the displaced disaster victims – mostly Black – to turn to substance use. In Houston, one in four Blacks said their mental health had gotten worse and 11% of Blacks report they increased their alcohol use as a result of Harvey.

The West Coast doesn’t fare much better with its own set of climate challenges. In California, devastating wildfires resulted in an uptick of prescription pill use. And researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health recently found that hospital visits from alcohol and drugs increased as a result of rising temperatures due to climate change.

Policy Responses and Adaptation Strategies

Because climate change is a complex and divisive issue, solutions can be equally perplexing. It requires a multi-faceted approach that integrates public health, social justice, and environmental science and technology. Most importantly, it must be community-driven, with those most impacted having a seat at the table.

One crucial aspect of a policy response is to be proactive rather than reactive. This means prioritizing interventions that promote community resiliency in under-resourced neighborhoods and communities of color, both in terms of physical infrastructure and mental health by doing the following:

  • Prioritize households with residents who are low income, elderly, disabled or non-English speaking in evacuation plans.
  • Demystify the process of receiving post-disaster aid by increasing the health and financial literacy of community members.
  • Establish mental health services and community support systems well in advance of natural disasters that equip individuals with healthy coping mechanisms that do not involve substance use.
  • Incorporate programs into high schools that foster advocacy and build resiliency, such as a resident leadership academy or Mind Matters.
  • Build a network of ‘trusted messengers’ – the people who carry out public health strategies within their own communities.

“Really, the first step is just understanding the effects climate change has on mental health,” according to Junee. “And only then can we address the resiliency part.”

As 2024 Ushers in a New Silent Opioid Epidemic, Securing LGBTQ+ Spaces is the Answer

As seen in WeHo Times

In the shadows of the ongoing opioid crisis that continues to grip our nation, a new silent epidemic has emerged that has gone virtually unnoticed. While the opioid epidemic has commanded national headlines and sparked urgent conversations about substance use disorders and treatment, the LGBTQ+ community continues to remain shrouded in silence – left in a battle to combat this crisis alone. Homophobia today contributes to more overdoses than ever before and our divisive politics stand in the way of saving the lives of our LGBTQ+ neighbors.

The tragic reality is that homophobia in our country continues to persist on a regular basis. The stigmatization and discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals often leads them to adopt unhealthy behaviors to cope – many of which predisposes them to a long-term struggle with substance use disorders. In 2020, LGBTQ+ individuals were found to use substances at nearly double the rate of the overall population. Consequently, LGBTQ+ individuals often enter treatment with more severe substance use disorders when compared to their heterosexual counterparts. While schools and community organizations have attempted to foster safe spaces to curb this pattern, our challenging and divisive political climate has hindered progress.

Over these past few years, nationwide anti-gay policies and legislation have threatened the safety of LGBTQ+ individuals. In 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis introduced the controversial “Don’t Say Gay bill. Meanwhile, the University of Houston closed its campus’ only LGBTQ+ resource center in response to the passing of Senate Bill 17, which banned diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education institutions. LGBTQ+ books across the US have been banned from libraries and schools with many believing that the art of drag poses a greater threat to our nation than deadly firearms.

Gay bars, which to many in the LGBTQ+ community are seen as safe havens for gathering, have been on a steady decline. A report by The Washington Post states “all gay bar listings declined by 37 percent between 2007 and 2019, the number of queer bars serving people of color declined by 59 percent, and bars for lesbians declined 52 percent.” Due to their decline, a large piece of safety and comfort is lost for many in the LGBTQ+ community. On top of that, those who are in the recovery community may want to avoid gay bars so as to not give in to pressures or temptations of alcohol.

With the unprecedented amount of vitriol the LGBTQ+ community is facing, now is the time to mobilize and unify efforts toward a positive paradigm shift. If our goal is to eliminate this new silent epidemic, we need to coalesce and diversify safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. While creating safe spaces is an arduous feat, history has also shown that unified efforts can achieve remarkable progress.

When HIV/AIDS was dubbed a silent epidemic during the 80s, The ACT UP coalition was formed to end misinformation, re-invigorate political action, and shift the public narrative surrounding the deadly disease. Founded by members of the LGBTQ+ community, they mobilized public awareness campaigns, staged demonstrations and most importantly, gathered members together to discuss the problems in an inclusive manner. The organization’s activism eventually propelled ACT UP to be an internationally recognized group, becoming a favorite choice for resources and information on HIV/AIDS for the LGBTQ+ community.

ACT UP was instrumental to the change in public perception of HIV/AIDS, paving the way for advancements in the social and scientific aspects of the silent epidemic. If we want to tackle this new silent opioid epidemic head-on, we must commit to mobilizing in a manner similar to ACT UP to end LGBTQ+ overdoses. One of our first steps should be creating more community spaces for LGBTQ+ people that are affirming and sober.

There is an urgent need for more LGBTQ+ spaces and events that do not have access to drugs and alcohol. Coffee shops, bookstores, and community centers should take initiative to host LGBTQ+ activities and become cornerstones for inclusive community building.

Cuties, a Los Angeles coffee shop that opened in 2017, was founded with the intention of providing a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community that was not focused around alcohol and substance use. They would host a variety of events at the cafe quickly becoming a hotspot for many of its patrons. Unfortunately, the brick and mortar coffee shop closed its doors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its untimely closing has contributed to the dwindling presence of LGBTQ+ safe and sober spaces.

It is essential to support local LGBTQ+ meeting spaces. To be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, reaching out to local school districts, chambers of commerce, and business owners to host LGBTQ+ nights is a first step in the right direction. For people who identify as LGBTQ+, the time is now to connect with our fellow LGBTQ+ neighbors and mobilize movements for safe and sober areas, which will pave the way for healthier,  and safer substance use practices. Even if these actions feel out of reach, simply talking to your families and neighbors about LGBTQ+ acceptance and sharing your own story of acceptance can move us toward a future where sexual identity does not put one at risk for an overdose.

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Darwin Rodriguez is a program manager at the Institute for Public Strategies and oversees the Safer WeHo Coalition in West Hollywood.

Is the Business of America Really Business? Or Should it Benefit All of Society?

The business of America is business. That famous quote is attributed to President Calvin Coolidge and has held sway over our culture and our national policy for more than a century. Interrupted only by World War II and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it picked up steam in the 1980s with globalization when the interests of corporate America once again became predominant. It left concerns about public health and social justice in the dust.

Certainly, some have benefited from this single-minded focus. But the truth is, most have not. For it has resulted in an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class. Since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center, the share of wealth owned by those in the upper-income level has increased from 60% to 79%, while the share owned by the middle and lower classes dropped from 32% to 17% and from 7% to 4%, respectively.

We need to understand something here. We’re not just talking about economics. Those on the wrong side of the wealth gap are suffering much more than a decline in prosperity. For them, it’s a matter of life and death. According to a study from Harvard University, poverty in America can mean substantial reductions in how long a person will live. The difference is much greater than “the two or three years you might expect,” the researchers say. It could be as many as 10 or 15 years. The average lifespan of the poorest Americans is equal to that in Sudan or Pakistan.

It’s well known that poverty affects physical health. Higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are all leading causes of death that have been noted in low-income and minority communities. Infectious diseases are also more prevalent, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more victims living in poor or overcrowded housing. However, the impact such conditions have on mental health has proved to be even more devastating.

Imagine waking up daily in a neighborhood with dilapidated buildings, graffiti painted on every wall, trash strewn along the sidewalks, people hanging around street corners dealing drugs, and gunshots ringing out on a nightly basis. Often it would be a low-lying area, so there would be no breeze. On hot days, such as with our recent heat wave, the asphalt would soak up the sunlight, dramatically increasing the temperature. There would be no parks and little green space. Heavy industry would be nearby with pollutants lingering in the air. It would sometimes be hard to breathe. Healthcare facilities would be scarce. There would be no markets selling fresh fruits or vegetables, just convenience stores with inflated prices.

How would any of us feel living in such conditions? Angry? Frustrated? Depressed? Suicidal? The answer is all the above. According to mental health experts, inadequate housing, poor nutrition, exposure to violence and crime, and lack of healthcare are all linked to mental illness. Combined with environmental stresses such as pollution, temperature extremes, and challenging sleep environments, they inevitably lead to higher rates of depressive disorders, anxiety, psychological distress, and suicide.

Moreover, if nothing is done, the problem is likely to get worse. Studies on intergenerational wealth show that when wealth is concentrated at the top, there will be less economic mobility. This means that as the gap in wealth gets wider, low-income families will have less and less chance of pulling themselves out of poverty. So, you get a winner-take-all system in which the very few accumulate vast fortunes, and the rest are left behind, permanently stuck in a vicious cycle of hopelessness, ill health, and early death.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In Europe both rich and poor enjoy a similar span of life, and each lives longer than their counterparts in America. The solutions are simple enough, and we are familiar with them all. They include increased access to better housing, health care, and education; financial literacy and job training; higher minimum wages and a host of other common-sense policies such as treating substance misuse as an illness rather than a crime.

First, we need to change our mindset. By buying into the zero-sum game of Corporate America, we have seen our country divided into winners and losers, a state of affairs that is neither fair nor sustainable. We need to adopt a new attitude, one that balances the interests of big business with our obligation to preserve the health and welfare of the general population. With this as a guiding principle, we should be able to retool our economic system so that it promotes widespread prosperity, benefiting all segments of society, not just the highest earners.


–IPS Editorial Board

Taxing Alcohol to Protect Public Health and Safety Is a Good Thing

Most people cringe at the idea of paying more taxes, including on alcoholic products. But when weighed against the cost that alcohol puts on communities, healthcare, and society, a strong case exists that more taxing is necessary.

An alcohol tax is a type of excise tax that is applied to beer, wine and spirits at the time of purchase. Generally, these taxes are implemented for two purposes. First, the financial benefit to taxing the sales of controlled substances is obvious. As demonstrated through historically high sales of alcohol leading into and following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as historical state revenue from these measures, taxes on controlled substances can represent a significant proportion of total tax dollars going to the state—despite making up a small percentage of total taxes.

Second, these taxes are intended to have a preventative effect on substance use by disincentivizing drinking—especially excessive drinking. As one of the major causes of acute and chronic disease and illnesses, alcohol consumption is a key concern for state public health officials by placing a tremendous financial and material strain on healthcare, emergency responders, and social services, as well as adjudication and workplace productivity costs. These costs are broadly passed on to residents and community members.

Rather than keeping up with the rising costs to public health and safety of alcohol, taxes on alcohol are either remaining stagnant or even being lowered. Essentially, alcohol is a commodity that generates $10.2 billion in revenue from taxes, yet results in a loss of $249 billion in costs to society. The disparity is stark.

Despite many states’ goals to reduce excessive and life-threatening alcohol consumption, several still fail to fully utilize taxes as a public health tool. California, for instance, languishes behind many other states in its alcohol excise taxes, charging pennies on the dollar for the sales of distilled spirits when viewed alongside comparable geographies—as much as ten times less than other states like Washington and Oregon.

One step that some states can take is to change regulations regarding alcohol taxation. One specific example is to categorize “alcopops”—pre-mixed boozy beverages like Four Loko and Mountain Dew Hard—as distilled spirits rather than malt beverages. This puts their sales prices much higher and is hypothesized to present a greater barrier to purchase, specifically for youths at risk of being enticed by marketing and packaging.

Increasing numbers of community members, prevention specialists, and lawmakers are understanding the damage alcohol causes and leading advocacy efforts to raise alcohol taxes. States like Illinois and Maryland, for example, have taken bold steps to increase alcohol taxes and have seen dramatic reductions in impaired driving and fatal alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes. It’s a steep climb for advocates of alcohol harm prevention to reverse decades of stagnant tax policy, but the benefits of increasing excise taxes on alcohol will become apparent to communities when issues like calls for police service, DUI crashes, and other alcohol-related harms are reduced.

For the families of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who die each year from alcohol-related harms, it’s past time for lawmakers to acknowledge that alcohol excise tax rates and the public health costs of alcohol are dramatically out of alignment.


Michael Pesavento
Communications Specialist

Michael Pesavento is a Communications Specialist in the San Diego County office. He serves on the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative that aims to reduce harms and responsibly regulate drug and alcohol usage in the San Diego area.

How the “Housing Theory of Everything” Can Help Explain Alcohol and Other Drug Problems

Up until the 1980s, common knowledge held that preventing addiction to substances, be they narcotic drugs, tobacco, or alcohol, were issues to be dealt with at the individual level through education and grounded in a moralistic knowledge of what is right and wrong.

Since then, attitudes about how to prevent drug and alcohol misuse have been scaled up, no longer focusing on the individual, but instead, on the community, in what has come to be known as “upstream prevention.”

This strategy seeks solutions that address a plurality of root causes that lead to alcohol and drug disorders. A great example of such a pluralistic root cause for substance use disorders is an unfortunately common issue throughout the U.S.: housing insecurity.

The “housing theory of everything” is a phenomenon that implies the U.S.’ housing shortage contributes to a broad range of societal problems such as inequality, climate change, disease, and stagnant population growth. A case can also be made for throwing substance use disorders into the mix as a consequence of the nation’s housing shortage.

Housing as a basic need

Housing is a fundamental necessity of human health, fulfilling both physiological and safety needs. However, the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented housing crisis, in large part because housing development hasn’t kept up at the same pace as population and job growth.

This is especially true in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Last year, approximately 20% of the U.S. population reported they were very likely facing foreclosure, and 14% likely facing eviction.

When individuals become unsheltered or are facing some type of housing insecurity, stress and anxiety can be dramatically exacerbated. This is due in part to the ripple effects of not having a stable and secure place to eat or sleep.

For example, individuals experiencing homelessness may find it difficult or near impossible to secure a job, as employers often require a stable address for employment. Similarly, things like physical and mental hygiene become difficult, if not impossible, to attend to when housing is not immediately available.

These compounding issues have a cascading effect on health and well-being and can lead to self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

“The Housing Theory of Everything”

Are substance use disorders a cause or an effect of housing insecurity? On this, experts disagree. But what we do know is that there is a strong association between housing insecurity and poor mental health, thus supporting the theory that one’s housing situation is determinative of a range of health outcomes.

Whether it is struggling with the anxiety of rising housing costs, an inability to pay rent, or uncertainty about where the next meal and place to sleep will be, many Americans are turning to common coping mechanisms: drugs and alcohol.

And as consumption of these substances increases, so do poor health outcomes as suggested by increases in healthcare costs to treat substance-related diseases, emergency department costs, alcohol-related traffic fatalities, and domestic violence.

This last fallout from alcohol and drugs – domestic violence – concerns many housing advocates. Approximately 80% of homeless mothers with children are victims of domestic violence. Many victims flee their abuser with scant economic resources, little family support, or no solid place to land.

Housing as a stabilizing factor toward mental health

Providing housing that is safe, clean, affordable, and accessible doesn’t completely solve the entire homelessness crisis, but is a good first start. When a basic need like housing is met, we can start to see a general decrease in self-medicating habits, as well as a greater community impact through less burdensome social services.

The State of California has enacted legislation that commits over half a billion dollars to housing and services for individuals struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. This effort is a fundamental starting point for addressing the link between housing and substance use, providing treatment beds for over 1,000 Californians experiencing homelessness.

However, programs like this fall short by treating housing insecurity as the result, rather than the cause, of substance misuse. Instead, we need to focus efforts toward programs aiming to thwart housing insecurity at its root. By providing stability and security, we can eliminate many of the anxieties that contribute to substance use disorders, and we can make a meaningful difference.


Michael Pesavento
Media Advocacy Specialist

Michael Pesavento is a Media Advocacy Specialist in the San Diego County office. He serves on the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative that aims to reduce harms and responsibly regulate drug and alcohol usage in the San Diego area.

Group of community advocates banning together

Creating a Prevention Campaign That Works

Lessons learned from tobacco control hold value for future efforts

In 1880, James Albert Bonsack filed a patent on an invention that would eventually pit industrial growth against public health.

Bonstack’s invention could roll hundreds of cigarettes a minute, revolutionizing the tobacco industry and creating a product that would see thousands of percentages of increases in use over just a few short decades.

Tobacco industrialists saw tremendous potential for profit in this new, portable and cheap cigarette. This signaled the beginning of what would become almost a century-long campaign to sell consumers a highly addictive, highly carcinogenic product. And it worked!

Over 100 years since Bonsack filed his original patent, communities everywhere are still subjected to the fallout of the “smoking boom” of the 1900s, and new smokers are created every day through products like flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes/vaporizers.

But all hope is not lost. In the decades since, public health professionals have advanced policy and enforcement measures around tobacco, and have learned important lessons in the process.

Many early attempts to create tobacco prevention campaigns framed much of the issue as one of personal choice. Most of those campaigns regarded the individual smoker as the important unit of change, believing that if you can change the thinking of an individual through education and appeals to reason, then you can halt a behavior in an entire population. However, we have since learned this narrow focus has a very limited effect.

Instead, modern prevention strategies have shifted the focus from individual knowledge, behavior and attitudes as the “unit of change” to acknowledging the role of policy, systems and “environmental factors” in shaping individual behavior. In this context, environmental factors include factors like the way a neighborhood is built, the types of businesses that exist there, the amenities and spaces available to residents and even transportation. In tobacco prevention, it also includes the devious marketing tactics of Big Tobacco.

When focusing on these environmental factors, modern prevention campaigns focus on influencing policy to produce community-level change. Democracy at any level, from the local city council all the way to state and federal jurisdictions, plays a role. Focusing on policy, rather than individuals, provides resources for enforcement and maintenance of policies.

Despite the understanding that smoking was already a population-level health hazard, smoking prevention in the 1970’s and 80’s approached it as an individual choice; something for people to stop doing on their own.

It wasn’t until studies began showing the effects of second and even thirdhand smoke exposure (especially on children) that conversations about prevention began to elevate on a national level. In 1990 the federal government instituted its ban on smoking in airplanes for U.S. domestic flights, a policy which expanded worldwide thereafter. In the early 2000s, many cities and local jurisdictions in the U.S. began implementing indoor smoking bans, and as of 2018 nearly 30 states had totally banned the smoking of cigarettes indoors. These broad policy changes reflect efforts at the federal, state and local levels by public health professionals and advocates to create evidence-informed changes that promote healthy decisions and reduce access and exposure to harmful substances like tobacco.

Even now, initiatives like IPS’ Smoke-Free Multi-Unit Housing (MUH) project aim to implement smoking restrictions in residential spaces where secondhand tobacco exposure can impact people’s health, with a goal to implement transformative, equitable policy strategies that keep residences free of harmful tobacco smoke and other carcinogens.

As prevention efforts continue to hone in on effective strategies, one element remains consistent: community. Involving community members and welcoming their input instantly elevates any campaign, and is absolutely vital to creating sustainable change after a campaign’s conclusion. Prevention professionals have learned that it is important to work with community members to develop a plan that meets them where they are, to create a shared language with residents that embraces policy and systems change, and to invest in the capacity of the communities so that residents can continue this important work.

Efforts to reduce smoking-related problems are far from over. Despite successes like California’s recent successful ballot measure that will ban flavored tobacco products, issues with nicotine and tobacco will persist. Youth access and second-hand exposure are likely issues that will take decades of work to address. However, through the efforts of dedicated public health professionals—and with a lot of patience—we can learn from our successes and failures to bring strong, coherent campaigns that truly influence population-level change.

Let’s not let those lessons go up in smoke.


Tobacco Prevention 2.0: Integrating Equity into Smoke-Free Multi-Unit Housing

Protecting the health and safety of everyone requires a new approach to policy

When it comes to housing vulnerable populations, tobacco prevention is essential. Tens of millions of Americans live in multi-unit housing (apartment buildings, condominiums, and other tightly-clustered living arrangements). A significant percentage of this housing is subsidized by the government.

Smoke-free building policies, which cover roughly one-third of multi-unit housing residences in the U.S., are intended to protect tenants from exposure to secondhand smoke, which can travel through open windows and under doors, seep in between shared walls, and blow through shared ventilation systems. Owners and managers of smoke-free housing also benefit from reduced fire risk and legal liability safeguards, lower maintenance costs, and maintenance of property value.

Research shows there is no level of safe exposure to secondhand smoke. In adults, health impacts range from mild nasal irritation to more severe health risks to the coronary, pulmonary, and reproductive systems.

In children, secondhand smoke can cause middle ear disease, compromise respiratory function, and even result in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Secondhand smoke is also responsible for triggering asthma. About 1 in 20 children suffer from asthma, and of those, about 1 in 6 are treated at emergency departments or hospitalized, resulting in high medical bills, missed school (and work) days, and decreased quality of life.

The lack of policy around secondhand smoke is particularly harmful to children, people with lower income, people with less education, residents of rental and multi-unit housing, people who live with someone who smokes inside the home, and people in traditionally “blue collar” occupations. The Black population, in particular, is exposed to more secondhand smoke than other racial and ethnic groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

As of June 2021, of the ten U.S. states with the highest proportion of Black residents, only three of those states have comprehensive smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking in all workplaces and public places. Of the seven states that do not have comprehensive laws, two also prevent local communities from adopting comprehensive smoke-free laws.

Smoke-free multi-unit housing policies have therefore been well-intentioned efforts to protect tenants from unwanted tobacco smoke. They have also, however, forced building managers to grapple with serious issues of equity: While it is not fair or right to expose tenants to someone else’s tobacco smoke, it is also ethically unsound to evict smokers with no other housing options available, particularly considering the U.S.’s current housing crisis.

Demand for housing that is in short supply for both homeowners and renters is sharply driving up the cost of homeownership and rent. The consequences are dire: billions of dollars in lost earnings, increased debt, overcrowded homeless shelters, more people living in their car or on the streets, and physical and emotional distress. It is neither a prudent public health nor ethical policy to force people out of their homes.

These dynamics have recently inspired a new take on smoke-free building policies. Cities in California, for example, have created equity-forward solutions that are less punitive toward the tenant while holding the HOA and/or landlord accountable for enforcing the policy before more extreme measures like tenant fines and eviction are implemented.

Berkeley’s Municipal Code 12.70 is one such example. Importantly, Berkeley’s policy is specifically framed to protect smokers, and eviction is not the preferred form of regulation and enforcement. Tenants who smoke are provided with adequate notice, education, access to comprehensive cessation resources, and reasonable accommodations.

Community groups advocating for smoke-free MUH policies, too, are adopting an equity-forward approach, ensuring affected tenants, and even smokers themselves, are involved in the process by sharing lived experiences, advising on policy details, and meeting with elected officials.

Solutions like the Smoke-Free Multi-Unit Housing Initiative are vital to preserving the health and well-being of tenants, property managers/owners, and community members without contributing to the housing insecurity crisis. The project advocates for eliminating extreme remedial measures such as massive fines or eviction in favor of a graduated, multi-step process that doesn’t shame or further threaten the health and well-being of smokers while also protecting non-smokers.

The tension between the needs and wants of smokers and non-smokers has plagued housing units for decades, and there are no easy solutions. These new, equity-forward approaches recognize the complexity of the problem and attempt to do a better job ensuring everybody – smokers and non-smokers alike – can live in housing that is healthy and safe.

California’s New Composting Law Takes on Climate Change

It’s no secret that the first to be impacted by the devastating effects of climate change are those who are already the most vulnerable. The startling and unprecedented changes to the natural world—caused, at least in part, by human activity—individuals that are already struggling are likely to bear the burden of environmental collapse. Already, researchers indicate that the impacts faced by these communities can be far more widespread and immediate than many might expect.

For example, an obvious impact of climate change is rising average temperatures; we feel it, summer after summer as the thermometer ticks ever upward. However, less expected are the secondary effects these changes might have—things like fewer opportunities for healthy outdoor time and worse mental health outcomes. These effects are exacerbated in communities where inequalities are most pronounced. For low-income communities where amenities like air-conditioning and insulation are fewer and further between, the effects of increased global warming will be felt most severely. 

That’s why it is important to look for “upstream” solutions to environmental issues. By addressing the root causes of a problem rather than its symptoms we can prevent harm, such as increased global temperatures, as well as its trickle-down effects, like impacted mental and physical health.

In that vein, California has recently begun to implement SB 1383—dubbed “California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy”—in earnest. This legislation was introduced in 2016 by then-Governor Jerry Brown, and broadly sets goals for the reduction of methane emissions in the state. 

Methane (CH4) is a leading contributor to atmospheric insulation, 25 times as potent a contributor as carbon dioxide (CO2). That ratio makes methane a major target for emission reductions, as pound-for-pound, methane accounts for much more atmospheric insulation—and thus, temperature increase—than do even pollutants from fossil fuels. That’s why bills like SB 1383 are working to reduce the amount of methane we release in California. 

One way to reduce methane emissions is by lowering the amount of organic waste being decomposed in municipal landfills. This entails creating proper composting sites for the separation of food and yard waste and redirecting organic matter that would otherwise end up creating methane into more productive areas. One such redirection is the distribution of the created compost to local farms, parks, and gardens.  

But what would this look like in practice?

We can look to state and local municipalities for examples of success in creating a buffer between vulnerable communities and climate effects. Often, these localities can address the specific needs of their community members more acutely than broad strokes approaches by other governing bodies.

For example, in 2018 the Institute for Public Strategies (IPS) partnered with San Bernardino County residents who were advocating for the City of Pomona to allow them to use a vacant city-owned property to create Pomona’s first urban farming project. The project—titled ECOFARM—focuses on composting to support climate change mitigation and alleviate environmental justice burdens on the immediate community. The city could not deny the efforts of the residents and voted unanimously in favor to allow the use of the vacant lot for the ECOFARM free of cost.  The ECOFARM was funded by a grant secured by residents from the California Environmental Protection Agency. Residents used the funds for basic infrastructure development, acquisition of tools and supplies, soil, irrigation, essential farm labor, as well as a variety of educational programming around nutrition and environmental justice. 

But the options for addressing both community and environmental issues at once are not limited to farming and gardening projects. Outside of SB 1383, California agencies are providing some direct assistance to local jurisdictions. Just this year the California Natural Resources Agency released millions in grants to local jurisdictions to use in environmental projects. Highlights from these grant releases include the agency’s Youth Community Access and Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation programs, each of which awarded over $10M for everything from greenspace cleanups to park improvements and youth outdoor programs.

Obviously, these programs are not the ultimate solution to climate change; that responsibility lies at the highest levels of government and industry and should be prosecuted with all the vigor we can muster. However, state and local level programs are an important push toward improving both environmental wellbeing and mental and physical health outcomes, especially for youth. Moreso, the push to reduce methane emissions—a high-level upstream initiative—made way for materially impactful local changes.

As the global climate faces significant changes in the immediate future, our adaptation to these new conditions must strategize prevention efforts that prioritize the health and safety of marginalized communities. Future regulations and policies can learn from this upstream approach to designing solutions. A world with less food waste is a world with fewer methane emissions; a world with working public transport is a world with fewer polluting cars; a world with more available, livable housing is a world with fewer children sleeping on our streets.

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Michael Pesavento
Media Advocacy Specialist, IPS

Michael Pesavento is a Media Advocacy Specialist in the San Diego County office.

This Election Cycle, Vote with Redistricting in Mind

California received a facelift this year in the form of a dramatic new redistricting plan that leaves the state’s political landscape barely recognizable, yet full of opportunities for new representatives to lead their regions. The changes have come at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress. They provide new opportunities for some communities to address neglected public health issues, but may also prevent other communities from strengthening their quality of life.

The politically independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission conducted the state’s redistricting process following the 2020 census data. The commission was tasked with considering census population data, complying with the federal Voting Rights Act to prevent discrimination against minority groups, and incorporating public opinion into the redistricting process. Now, the commission is being scrutinized for its map-drawing processes and potential biases.

The drama behind the scenes is spilling over into public conversations about Congressional and statewide representation as new districts have significantly shifted population density and demographics. For example, California will be losing a Congressional seat for the first time in state history. In a legislative process where every vote counts, losing a seat can shift party lines and tip the power balance dramatically. These reallocations of power may be one of the reasons why 48 members of Congress have decided to not run for reelection. Of the 23 Democrat Representatives not seeking reelection, three are from California.

For other California incumbents whose terms end in 2022, such as State Senator Patricia Bates of District 36 in San Diego, the new district lines could lead to shifting party power and favor new candidates of the previous minority party. Senator Bates’ Republican-leaning District 36 is now being replaced by District 38, which possesses a Democratic majority voter base. This change will require an entire reassessment of the party powers in districts throughout California, as new voter bases demand different priorities from their representatives.

Redistricting has also given more power to historically marginalized communities. The Public Policy Institute of California reported that the new district maps have 16 majority Latinx districts compared to the previous 10. With a population located in low-income communities, leaving them more vulnerable to less healthy environments, having greater representation for marginalized groups at the state legislative level is key in meeting the public health priorities for these communities.

What does this all mean for the future of public health policy in California and our nation as a whole? While redistricting may sometimes feel disruptive to the democratic system, it also has the opportunity to empower diverse groups to influence the health outcomes they want. Local and state government programs and community-based organizations have a responsibility to make a conscious effort to fill in the gaps of support created by redistricting, which has affected vulnerable communities throughout the state.

For example, former Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez recently resigned to become CEO of the California Labor Federation. Her 80th District assembly district was redrawn, which would have put her in competition with Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber for the 79th District seat. Her seemingly innocent career transition left community members to deal with problems like air pollution and high ozone levels without the help of their elected representative. Assembly District 80 encompasses the southern region of San Diego County including San Ysidro and Chula Vista, which suffer from air pollution and high ozone levels, leading to adverse health impacts like high asthma rates.

One of the most effective means of creating healthy community change is through the voters themselves. Constituents have significant power to engage in the legislative process by contacting their representatives, working with legislators to address public health issues, and voting for politicians that will address relevant problems in the most vulnerable communities.

While the moving pieces of California’s political landscape take time to fit into their new places, residents can influence what candidates and issues will be the focus of their attention. The power to address harmful environmental factors and public health disparities lie with community members. There is no need to wait for change to happen. We can influence how our communities take shape, by prioritizing the health and well-being of those around us.

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Maxwell Johnson
Prevention Specialist

Maxwell Johnson is a resident of downtown San Diego and a prevention specialist for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative at the Institute for Public Strategies. He graduated from SDSU with a degree in Political Science and Communication.

Juneteenth at IPS: Historical Oppression and Upstream Prevention

On June 19, 1865, U.S. General Gordon Granger led federal troops to Galveston, Texas — one of the few remaining areas of the deep south that had held resistance late into the Civil War. As General Granger stepped foot on that arid soil, he brought with him orders which stated that all slaves were to be set free. These words, stated over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, marked what many consider to be the “official” end of slavery in the United States, as those freed in Texas that day were many of the last slaves to be informed of their liberation.

This year, on June 19, 2022, the United States will be recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday following its enshrinement at the federal level in 2021. The Institute for Public Strategies will also be recognizing Juneteenth as a paid company holiday. IPS’ formal recognition of Juneteenth as an important date represents our organizational commitment to serving and elevating the voices of African American communities to address their unique needs and visions.

As practitioners of population-level prevention programs, IPS initiatives address the root causes of health disparities, which are frequently the result of inequitable community conditions and social injustice.  To prevent harm and improve public health and safety, IPS focuses on policy and systems change to achieve healthy, safe environments and provide for equal opportunity so that everyone in a community can thrive—this elevates the health of entire communities, rather than focusing on the health of select individuals. That’s why, when discussing the issues relevant to African American communities, context is key. Issues that have plagued neighborhoods for decades—nearly centuries—did not crop up overnight. In fact, quite the opposite: history shows that many of the persistent issues faced by African American communities are rooted in systemic and institutional inequities.

In areas like San Diego County, IPS initiatives encounter these structural injustices across programs. For example, IPS San Diego’s Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative (BUDI) often sees evidence of systemic inequity in things like the concentration of liquor outlets in neighborhoods of color—areas that were often formerly “redlined” by racist housing practices. Moreso, despite African Americans often drinking less on average than other demographic groups, predatory marketing practices by alcohol manufacturers are often targeted toward young Black people.

These are only a few instances of unequal and unfair treatment toward African Americans by just one industry—Big Alcohol. However, they represent just a few blips along a spectrum of injustice leveled against Black communities stretching all the way back to before that historic date on June 19, 1865.

In fact, many slaves brought from West Africa to the Americas during the early slave trade were bought for gallons worth of rum—a product of the very same sugar cane from plantations already employing slave labor. Thus, the history of African slavery in the Americas is also inextricably linked to its production of alcohol. This metaphor can be extended even further to describe how alcohol was historically used to control enslaved peoples; drunkenness was discouraged, except around the holidays when alcohol was liberally distributed to keep slaves from thoughts of revolt or insubordination. This mentality then informed later laws like Black Codes and Jim Crow which would enforce strict penalties for drunkenness in public—if you were Black.

Despite the long and storied history of the use of alcohol as an oppressive tool toward Black communities, this topic represents just one way in which a single IPS initiative encounters the deep history of injustice toward communities of color.

For example, in 2020 after the City of Adelanto passed legislation that proclaimed racism as a public health crisis, staff at IPS San Bernardino affirmed our organizational commitment to the value of Black lives and communities. This effort presents several opportunities for staff collaboration with the City of Adelanto, including educating BIPOC youth about engaging with local government and working with high-risk businesses to develop ways they can contribute more positively and equitably to the community. Along with other partnerships—like The St. Joseph Foundation’s Heart & Soul initiative and the Reimagine Our Communities Coalition (ROC)—IPS San Bernardino continues to exemplify allyship for Black health and safety.

Despite the hurdles IPS encounters working on our projects, we believe in creating equity and fairness in health and safety. This means learning from, engaging with, and elevating the voices of the communities we serve. Reverend Bolivar Flores, IPS’ newest member of its Board of Directors, summed up this mission:

“IPS wants to create a healthy community by creating economic opportunity, keeping residents safe by preventing crime, and focusing on equality for all. […] They have partnered with community groups throughout the nation to advance policies on issues related to public health, safety, equity and social justice. I believe the best way to create change is by defining the underlying issues and devising plans to resolve them, and IPS’ work on policy and systems change exemplifies that. […] Seeing that ambition to help a community rebuild into a safer city and create a brighter future for its residents is very inspirational.”

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Michael Pesavento
Media Advocacy Specialist

Michael Pesavento is a Media Advocacy Specialist in the San Diego County office.