How once-vacant sites are becoming hubs for health equity in Michigan

by Estelle Slootmaker

In December 2008, Classic Chevrolet shuttered its location in Wyoming, just outside Grand Rapids. The huge building stood empty. But in 2012, Cherry Health transformed the dealership's showroom and offices into spaces for medical, behavioral health, and dental clinics, later adding a vision clinic in the former service bays.

"We were looking for a site that could serve the city of Wyoming and southwestern Grand Rapids as a federally qualified health center," says Mike Reagan, Cherry Health external relations officer. "The former Classic Chevy was centrally located, easy to access by public transit, and … gave us the potential to grow."

The neighborhood surrounding Cherry Health's Wyoming location includes many low-rent apartment complexes as well as modest single-family homes — an area where many displaced by housing costs in Grand Rapids' gentrified neighborhoods are now seeking housing. In addition, much of Wyoming's homeless population lives in tent encampments a mile or two away. The location is also convenient for people living in income-challenged neighborhoods of southwest Grand Rapids.

"The whole purpose is that we can serve anyone regardless of their ability to pay," Reagan says.

Cherry Health has repurposed multiple buildings for healthcare throughout its 30-year history, and it isn't alone in doing so. The mission of expanding health equity has inspired many Michigan providers to transform defunct, nontraditional spaces into healthcare facilities.

The benefits are twofold. Marginalized Michigan residents are finding health services in locations they can access in their neighborhoods or via public transportation. And buildings that had sat vacant, as potential sources of blight, have become the bright spots on the block.

From a small room in a mosque to a renovated church 

When it opened in 2004 within the Muslim Center of Detroit, the Health Unit on Davison Avenue (HUDA) was a monthly, one-room clinic staffed by volunteer doctors. In its new site within a former Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in central Detroit, HUDA now serves more than 300 patients a month, four days a week, providing adults primary care, ophthalmology, dental, podiatry, and mental health services. The free clinic also offers ultrasound, dietitian services, Medicaid enrollment, and hosts special events like "Project Happy Feet" for people experiencing homelessness.

"We serve the uninsured and the underinsured," says HUDA executive director Eman Altairi. "Our current location has helped us tremendously. It's large enough to see many patients and have an administrative side and health education, right across the street from the Muslim Center."

Senior clients especially benefit from HUDA's main food garden, which grows fresh produce to address four specific health conditions: diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, and anemia. Four additional raised beds are open to the neighborhood.

"Any time of the day, they can pick that produce. Everything is for free," Altairi says. "This area has only liquor stores and corner stores. The garden provides our patients and neighbors with access to healthier food options."

While the clinic does not see children as patients, its outreach program sends doctors, an EMT unit, and local medical students to local schools for "Be a doctor for a day" events. 

"We are trying to shift to more mentorship, more services to youth," Altairi says.


This article is part of State of Health, a series examining health disparities, how they affect Michigan's children and seniors, and the innovative solutions being developed to address them. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund

Click here to view the entire post!