Participants and organizers of the Confronting Our Health Equity Crisis conference in Bethpage Wednesday said health disparities on Long Island cannot be addressed without examining and reducing gaps in education, housing, the criminal justice system, jobs and transportation.
“These are all factors that have a huge influence on our health outcomes, our educational outcomes and our social mobility,” said Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, which organized the conference.
Lack of income, employment and transportation may prevent someone from accessing health care and nutritious food, she said. Mold in a home can cause health problems.
The disparities are stark, Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman said during a state of equity on Long Island discussion moderated by Newsday columnist Joye Brown.
The black teenage unemployment rate in Nassau is nearly double that of white teens, and Latinos are about 20 percent less likely to graduate high school than students overall, he said.
Yet many of those with the power to make changes that can reduce disparities and improve Long Islanders’ lives are not attending events like Wednesday’s, said Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director for the NAACP and executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County.
“Our next step is to have a policymakers conference, to have the actual change agents hear the information and go back and use the influence that’s needed to make improvements for everyone,” Edwards said.
She pointed to a “deconstructing the prison pipeline” forum last month sponsored by Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon). Much of the focus was on changes needed in schools, yet few school board members and superintendents were there, she said.
“One of my goals since I’ve taken office is to get to kids before they get to me,” said Toulon, who also pointed out that the schools are key to keeping people out of jail.
His office and the Health and Welfare Council are working to develop a program aimed at school districts that are the source of a disproportionate number of jail inmates and that have high expulsion and suspension rates.
When kids are not in school because of suspensions or expulsions, “that’s just a breeding ground for more trouble,” Toulon said. The program would use counselors and others to work on issues in students’ lives that are causing behavioral problems, he said.
Toulon said in the jails, he has brought in counselors from area nonprofits to work with inmates, who “all have gone through something traumatic in their lives, and it’s caused them to become incarcerated or caused them to make poor choices, [and caused] mental health issues or substance abuse issues.”
Most of those inmates will one day be “in front of you or behind you at Target,” he said, so “we really need to extend a helping hand and show them respect.”
A challenge in building an understanding of barriers that many Long Islanders face is that residents often have limited contact with people who are different from them, because of the long-standing housing segregation on the Island, said Marianela Casas, assistant commissioner for community engagement for the Nassau Police Department.
Casas grew up in Freeport, which appears on paper to be racially and ethnically diverse. But, she said, most Latinos, African Americans and whites live in distinct parts of the village.
“Guess what?” she said. “Those kids from a very early age are going to segregated schools.”