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COVID-19 exposes major disparities between neighboring Houston-area communities — Gulfton and Bellaire

HOUSTON – The coronavirus pandemic has revealed wide income and health care disparities between two neighboring Houston-area communities — Gulfton and Bellaire. The differences between these two communities, separated by one road, are stark.

A short walk into the Gulfton neighborhood in southwest Houston, one can see the workings of a bustling community — everyday people living everyday lives. However, the struggles faced by this working-class community, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, are in sharp contrast to the city of Bellaire, just east of Bissonnet Street.

Many Gulfton residents are struggling to make ends meet, but the community is looking at ways to curb this disparity.

In the Sellers Bros shopping complex, Isamar Aragon works hard every day at the Lecaroz Mexican Bakery.

“Every day. We have clients coming in the morning and the evening,” Aragon said.

Among her regular clients is 70-year-old Jose Hernandez, who takes his daily bread and coffee break at the bakery after pushing his soda cart around town.

“I come here every day except (for) Sunday,” Hernandez said in Spanish.

Hernandez said he is thankful to God for how well he has it because many of his neighbors and friends have to struggle to survive.

“Our community — the majority work in the service industry and they are out providing you their food, cleaning the hospitals and doing the sanitation. So they are very, very high risk of getting infected with COVID,” said Sandra Rodriguez, a Gulfton resident and community leader.

Rodriguez is a long-time Gulfton resident who says she has lived in apartments for 35 years.

“As we talk to our neighbors, we hear what their challenges are,” Rodriguez said.

The Gulfton neighborhood is made up of mostly minorities with the latest demographic data revealing 69% of residents are Hispanic. The culture of the neighborhood is rich but it’s dwindling in economic wealth.

“A lot of our families are making minimum wage and sometimes less,” Rodriguez said.

Maria Chaire is a snapshot of the disparity.

"I'm really worried because jobs are scarce and there's very little money," Chaire said in Spanish.

COVID-19 has hit Gulfton hard, with more than 1,100 confirmed coronavirus cases and 13 deaths. Across Bissonnet St., the story is much different in the city of Bellaire. The more affluent town has reported just 78 cases as of Thursday morning.

“We’ve had a number of recoveries and thankfully no deaths,” said Bellaire Mayor Andrew Friedburg.

The two neighboring communities have drastically different qualities of life. It is a divide so stark you can pinpoint it on the Episcopal Health Foundation’s life expectancy map.

The Episcopal Health Foundation showed KPRC 2 census data. Life expectancy in Bellaire is 87.4 years old. In Gulfton, by contrast, that age drops by more than a decade at 75.9 years old.

“What the map really does show you is (that) geography does matter. If you live in a neighborhood where the quality of housing is not as high, where the job opportunities are not as great or the access to fresh foods are not as great, you simply don’t have the opportunities to live a healthy lifestyle,” said Elena Marks, CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation.

In Bellaire, many residents are involved and engaged in community matters and and law enforcement is efficient and well-supported, Friedburg said.

“Our primary objective is, first and foremost, the protection of people’s health and safety,” Friedberg said.

The pandemic affects residents in Bellaire too.

“Today I got laid off,” said David Froming, a Bellaire resident. His wife works as a doctor, and the couple is confident they should be okay.

“I got an interview tomorrow so that’s a good sign,” he said.

But for Gulfton residents like Guillermina, she isn’t so sure. Guillermina asked to be identified only by her first name. Her husband was the bread-winner and worked as a janitor in hospitals. Like Isomar, Jose and Maria, they didn’t have health insurance.

"He was really scared because he knew they were bringing sick people into the hospital. I told him to retire," Guillermina said in Spanish.

But her husband had to work and Guillermina, her husband and her children all contracted COVID-19. Her husband went to the hospital for treatment in May. He died on June 13. She never got to see him.

“He was such a good person. He took care of my kids,” she said.

It’s stories like hers that have inspired District J Councilman Edward Pollard and the city to organize regular food drives and hand out personal protective equipment. Likewise, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner created a Health Equity Response Initiative and Task Force accelerating data-driven, targeted and rapid response that gets food and information to residents in 22 priority super neighborhoods.

“Everyone needs to lead by example,” Pollard said. These residents tell them what they need.

"Access to information. Access to healthcare and access to testing sites," Rodriguez said.

"Is everything being distributed equally? If so, then we're not addressing inequities well because not everyone has the same needs," Marks said.

Beyond geographical lines are people, loved ones and families who all want health, happiness and a stronger Houston.

"Muy positiva. Optimista!" Isamar Aragon said ready to take the next bread customer.

Resources for families in need

Health Equity Response Initiative and Taskforce Survey: https://www.houstontx.gov/her-survey.html

Houston Financial Empowerment Centershttps://www.houstontx.gov/fec/

Houston Programs & Serviceshttp://www.houstontx.gov/health/programs.html

How to track coronavirus caseshttps://publichealth.harriscountytx.gov/Resources/2019-Novel-Coronavirus

Latest on COVID-19 Response: http://houstonemergency.org/

What is Stronger Houston?

As Houston’s first television station and after more than 70 years of broadcasting, KPRC continues to work to serve our community. In our series “Stronger Houston,” we examine issues impacting people inequitably by race, gender, income, age, geography, religion, and other factors. These fault lines can create unfair divides in our community. We strive to not only raise awareness but also focus on solutions, resources available, and the people and groups working to reduce the disparity and ultimately create a stronger Houston.