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Walking 'school bus' helps put kids on course

 

Each school day, a dozen or more children who live in Potrero Hill public housing hop on board their very own "school bus" to travel safely with friends to Daniel Webster and Starr King elementary schools. "Driver" Uzuri Pease-Greene starts the long, steep pull up 25th Street at 7:30 a.m. Her adult daughter, Urell Pease, makes sure the "bus" stays on schedule. The children walk briskly, chatting all the while, stopping frequently at front doors to take on more passengers. If there's no one waiting, Pease-Greene pokes her cell phone with one thumb to call to say the bus has arrived.

The benefits are numerous: Kids are more likely to arrive at school on time and early enough to eat school breakfast, giving them better odds at completing high school with job and life skills. A hike up Potrero Hill's steep streets gives everyone, adults included, a good workout. And there's no better way to connect with your community than to walk it.

Pease-Greene lingered in front of a door adorned with a wreath of brightly colored autumn leaves in the Potrero Annex. She had called twice. No one had appeared. She sighed and led the bus passengers through the housing to another door.

  Uzuri Pease-Green (left) and her daughter, monitor Urell Pease, knock on doors to pick up children and walk them safely to school in San Francisco.

Uzuri Pease-Green (left) and her daughter, monitor Urell Pease, knock on doors to pick up children and walk them safely to school in San Francisco.

Ridership varies by day. Children are rewarded with a book or other item if they walk regularly. Parents are invited to walk along too, but on Monday only children were on board.

The walking school bus is a project to transform life in San Francisco's southeast sector public housing, where poverty is deep and community trust weak. A partnership between the city and a nonprofit housing developer is working to replace the 70-year-old housing with new, mixed public and affordable housing when funding is found. The Campaign for Hope SF is working with public housing residents now to develop a healthier, more resilient community.

That's how Pease-Greene came to drive the bus. "Before I got here, I was acting stupid," she said bluntly. She woke up one morning after a long night and said to herself, "Do something. Be an asset to your community. Channel your energy into something positive."

The housing developer had scheduled a series of meetings to launch the community redevelopment effort. Pease-Greene dropped by. She was recruited for the leadership academy and eventually went to work for Bridge Housing. Now she's working on a handful of community projects. She's in college, and has her eye on earning a master's degree in social work.

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At Missouri Street and Watchman Way in Potrero Annex, the Daniel Webster-bound bus met Eddie Kittrell, another "bus driver," who walks a smaller group of older children to Starr King. While the younger kids wore neon green safety vests like the drivers, the older students weren't interested. "They think it clashes with their attire," said Pease-Greene matter-of-factly.

But the kids liked the bus. "You get to talk with your friends about what you did on the weekend," explained Roger Blalark Jr., 9, who recently had begun attending Starr King.

Did they hang out together at school? "Oh, yes," said Lia Kaulave, who walks each day with her twin, Gianni.

The younger kids peeled off and headed over the hill to Daniel Webster. Kittrell's group wound along Watchman Way toward Starr King, carefully crossing broken pavement, walking around rows of blue, green and gray recycling cans lining the sidewalks and past a street shrine - a reminder that violence and trauma are a too constant presence here.

The driver's job, first and foremost, Kittrell said, is to make sure the children feel safe. "We don't let nobody bother them," he said. Kittrell, who has lived on Potrero Hill for 19 years and served as president of the tenants association for 16, also was part of the peer leadership group that calls its work the Healthy Generations Project. Kittrell says he's already received his reward - he says he's lost 40 pounds since he began driving the bus in September and has his diabetes under control.

The walking school bus and other projects seek to address the trauma, isolation, poor health and instability at home that has scarred the Potrero Hill community, according to Ellie Rossiter, the Campaign for Hope SF director. Mostly, she said, it seeks to identify community leaders to help build trust and lead change.

The walking school bus is a simple idea - almost anyone could start one - that puts the community in the driver's seat in the journey toward a better life for all.

 
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Hope­ — and Healing Hope­ — and Healing — Go Into Massive Redevelopment Effort

by Natalie Orenstein and Barbara Ray

When patients arrive in the lobby of the new Sunnydale Health and Wellness Center, in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood, the first thing they see is a bustling front desk helmed by helpful staff.

And while that doesn’t sound unusual, the front desk staff are not just any friendly employees. They, like the patients, are tenants of the Sunnydale public housing complex. The employees are “peer health leaders” — residents who are trained to work as intermediaries between service providers and other public housing residents, and in some cases as health advisors to their neighbors.

But these peer employees represent something even more critical than their important desk jobs: They are key to overcoming one of health care’s longtime challenges in low-income, and particularly public-housing, neighborhoods — lack of trust.

uzuri for supervisor

The health center and the peer health leaders are part of a $3 billion, 20-year effort to redevelop some of San Francisco’s oldest public housing complexes and the neighborhoods that surround them. The effort, called HOPE SF, is about much more than rebuilding dilapidated buildings.

When the city and its more than 30 public and private partners launched the project 10 years ago, they knew health issues affected the public housing tenants in all aspects of their lives — so health had to be at the forefront of their fight against the harms of concentrated poverty.

Putting health upfront, says Theo Miller, who directs the project for the city of San Francisco, “is a monumental shift for public housing and for the city.”

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Why Health in Housing Redevelopment?

The Hope SF reforms are taking place during a time of growing awareness that one’s health is a product of one’s community and environment. Genetics and luck play significant roles, but the “social determinants of health” are what contribute to residents in one neighborhood living years longer than those living just a couple subway stops or exit ramps apart.

Low-income families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with environmental hazards, substandard housing, cut off from jobs and opportunity, without full-service grocery stores, and other conditions that tax health. PolicyLink has called this health–housing connection the “modern-day segregation.”

Bayview-Hunters Point is a case in point. Once home to a naval shipyard, the southeastern-most neighborhood in San Francisco became the city’s industrial hub for much of the 20th century. Power plants, a sewage treatment center, and dozens of brownfields created numerous lingering health hazards for residents. Disinvestment, coupled with federal housing policy and major shifts in the global economy, concentrated disadvantage and poverty in the isolated area — while the rest of the city has quickly grown wealthy. Although the black population has declined dramatically in San Francisco, African-Americans are still a plurality in Bayview-Hunters Point, where opportunities are scarce and where residents feel cut off from the economic boom.

Hunters View District 10 Uzuri Greene

Because of exploding demand for housing in the city, market-rate developers have been laying claim to every free square foot of land — which makes the HOPE SF development even more critical for its current residents.

Current tenants have the right to return when the new buildings are complete, and they are promised temporary on-site housing during construction, an unusual protection. In Chicago, for example, where similar transformations are underway, the city has lost 14,000 public housing units in the push for mixed-income communities, and only 8 percent of original public housing residents are living in the new mixed-income developments. (Another one-third had moved back to public housing and 40 percent used vouchers to move elsewhere.)

Many of the San Francisco tenants or their families have lived in the four complexes for decades. HOPE SF is the most ambitious improvement project they have seen, though it’s hardly the first. Over the years, services have come and gone, and researchers who come to take surveys are often never heard from again.

“We’ve seen people come in and out of this community, promising things to residents and not following through.”

“For many years, we’ve seen people come in and out of this community, promising things to residents and not following through,” said Iulio, a tenant in a new unit at Hunters View, the site furthest along in the redevelopment process.

This broken trust has shaped how the residents interact with the city, with each other — and with the medical system.

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Finding Health on Top of the Hill

It’s an unusually crisp late summer day at Potrero Terrace & Annex. The grey-blue of the sky meets the grey-blue of the bay. As they do most weekday mornings, a group of tenants has gathered for the walking club, only this time in puffy coats and earmuffs.

They walk around the complex in a pack, picking their way carefully down dirt slopes in places without pavement. “You’re entering no-man’s land,” announces Uzuri Pease-Greene, a Potrero resident who works for BRIDGE. No buses come to this side of the development, and there are large areas that are not wheelchair-accessible.

On today’s walk, a resident named Bobbi keeps time and leads the group. She always does, she jokes, because she wants to get done with it first. Bobbi has been living at Potrero for 46 years, so she knows the complex intimately but rarely leaves her apartment because she is wary of “drama.”

“I like peace,” she says. But walking feels therapeutic, so she doesn’t miss a club gathering.

Other club members are newer to the neighborhood. Janice moved to Potrero from the less isolated Richmond District seven years ago. At first, she was nervous; she hated hearing the police come every night. Over time, she began to feel more comfortable in the neighborhood and discovered that people are friendly.

Still, “I’d never walk by myself here,” she says. The walking club has helped her integrate into the community and make friends she would not have otherwise. They are always teasing each other.

“You’re skinny.” says Janice’s friend.

“It’s because I walk.” she brags.

In the middle of the pack is Pamela Winchester, who has lived at Potrero for 20 years. She started walking to improve her health, and to get in shape so she could play with her two grandkids at the park.

Since she started participating in the club and other activities, like the Zumba class, Winchester has lost 28 pounds. She is relieved that her cholesterol and blood pressure are down.

“Ooh, these hills, though,” she says as the group climbs a gnarly one. “They keep me moving, keeping me living.”