staff at the Housing Authority of the City of Austin always knew that the families living in HACA’s 18 low-income housing properties faced a number of serious health challenges.

The families HACA serves average around $12,000 in annual household income. That means many residents have to make difficult decisions when it comes to their own health. As HACA Executive Vice President Sylvia Blanco put it, “Sometimes it comes down to whether to fill a prescription or buy groceries.”

A recent survey of 504 residents living at HACA properties put those challenges in stark focus. According to the survey, 76 percent of residents have one or more chronic diseases. More than 1 in 5 residents reported issues with chronic pain, diabetes, mental health issues, high cholesterol or obesity. Nearly half of the respondents—47 percent—have visited the emergency room in the past year.

“[The survey] was a sobering confirmation that our residents do struggle and deal with challenges financially and health-wise,” Blanco said.

To help those residents struggling with their health, HACA and The University of Texas Dell Medical School have developed a two-year pilot program for families at the Pathways at Booker T. Washington Terraces in East Austin, HACA’s largest property.

Community health workers will be going door-to-door to develop individual plans with residents, and the program will also include monthly group activities and exercises. Dell Medical School researchers will then use data from residents to improve understanding of low-income families’ health needs. The program is mostly funded through a $315,000 grant from the St. David’s Foundation.

Blanco said the program will not “reinvent the wheel” by duplicating services already available in the community, but it will help residents connect to services already available while using feedback to develop additional group wellness programs.

Booker T. Washington resident Rosie Ortiz said she is excited about telemedicine services so her daughter, Destiny, a seventh-grade student at Kealing Middle School, does not have to miss school. Mostly, Ortiz said, she wants to be there for Destiny.

“I worry about myself, too, because if I don’t take care of myself, who’s going to take care of her?” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said she hopes her neighbors will also take advantage of the program. According to the survey, 90 percent of respondents desire health navigation support; 84 percent desire health group visits, and 50 percent desire family cooking classes.

“I know the way [the program] is going to help me is the way it is going to help everybody in general,” Ortiz said. “I know it’s a good opportunity that I hope people will not let it go.”