Franklinton residents live an average of 60 years — nearly 15 years shorter than the average Ohioan, according to a recent study.
It’s an issue driven by many complex factors and one for which community health officials say they’re struggling to find an answer.
“When we see such a large gap … what it’s telling us is that there are underlying factors that are driving these differences in health outcomes,” said Amy Bush Stevens, vice president of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio, which included life expectancy statistics in its 2021 health value dashboard released earlier this year. “Things like our education level, our income level, what kind of job we have, what kind of social support and family support we have, nutrition … all those things have a really big impact on our health.”
Lower life expectancy is just one of the many struggles that for decades have challenged the neighborhood just west of Downtown, Bush Stevens said. Franklinton has an infant mortality rate, for example, of 15.2 deaths per 1,000 births, nearly double the Franklin County average.
Addiction, violent crime and dilapidated housing, coupled with a high poverty rate (52% compared to 17% for Franklin County residents overall), also have restricted residents’ access to quality health care and a higher standard of living.
The Dispatch touched on many of these problems, in Franklinton and the greater West Side, and what the community is doing to try to address them in its award-winning series: Suffering on Sullivant.
“Housing is something that we have looked at quite a bit because it has a very strong effect on health,” Bush Stevens said.
Living in run-down, overcrowded housing can led to stress, she said. And “a lack of affordable housing — if you’re spending more than half of your income on housing — means you have less money to spend on health care or healthy food.”
What is being done to improve the health and lives of Franklinton residents?
Columbus Public Health, Lower Lights Christian Health Center, Franklinton Farms and Mount Carmel Women’s Health Center are among the groups that have pushed for better clinical services to improve the community’s health and well-being.
“Life expectancy is largely based on the social determinants of health,” or the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life outcomes, said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, Columbus Public Health Commissioner. These factors include an inability to access nutritious foods, a lack of transportation, inadequate education, job insecurity and poor-quality housing.
“That that’s why Columbus Public Health and the city of Columbus and so many of our partners have been working hard to improve that neighborhood.”
Dr. Roberts pointed to Mount Carmel’s emergency room and Lower Lights Christian Health Center, which are both in the neighborhood, and Columbus Public Health’s plan to bring mobile health units into Franklinton to increase residents access to health care as examples of effort trying to make a difference.
While Franklinton’s lower life expectancy is just a part of deeper, longer-running socioeconomic challenges facing the community, it’s still one that Tracy Cloud, who is CEO of Lower Lights, believes is fixable over time.
“We also help people really address barriers and work through barriers to health care,” Cloud said. “Those barriers look a lot different than maybe people in other communities or living in other parts of the state.”
Cloud said the nonprofit, faith-based health center located in the heart of center at 1160 W. Broad St. provides mental, physical and spiritual health services while also helping patients cope and recover from trauma. An important part of meeting that mission requires earning the trust of those suffering from addiction, sex trafficking or other issues not easily fixed with a simple telehealth visit, she said.
Another group working to meet the health and greater well-being needs of residents is Franklinton Farms, which brings healthy food options to the community.
“We operate in a USDA-classified food desert; many of our neighbors have been systemically or functionally excluded from accessing nutritious, fresh foods,” said Becca Brown, co-executive director of the organization.
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Experts have long said that access to healthy foods along with good and sanitary housing and wealth play a major role in a community’s life expectancy.
“The long-term answer is to really look at how can we improve the social and economic environment and the physical environment in these communities so that everyone has fair access to self-sufficient employment, to decent wages and to education attainment,” Bush Stevens said. “Focusing on education policy, housing policy … child care subsidies that support employment. Those are all things that can help.”
In the short-term, it’s important from the community to do things such as provide access to COVID-19 vaccinations and combat overdose deaths, a growing problem throughout the state, she said.
The life expectancy gap in Franklinton highlights just one of the health disparities faced by the state’s residents, Bush Stevens said.
“It’s a gap that I think indicates that we need to be doing more to make sure that all Ohioans — no matter what ZIP code they live in or census tract they live in or what their race or ethnicity is — have access to the kind of things that support good health.”