May 12, 2022

By Starr Sanders

Member of SEIU 721 and Watts Healthcare Substance Abuse Disorder Counselor


The COVID-19 pandemic is still devastating Black communities because our fight for civil rights isn’t yet done.  The longstanding effects of poverty, racism, and barriers to health care in Black communities created a tinder box just waiting for the virus to catch fire.  As a substance use disorder counselor at Watts Healthcare, I see these same conditions fueling another epidemic ravaging Black communities: opioid abuse. 

Our grandparents’ generation made history when they took to the streets in the Watts Rebellion, demanding greater opportunities to live whole lives with dignity and respect that we deserve. It was in that critical moment that Watts Healthcare was born.  What started as a volunteer-driven effort to bring quality care to Watts is now a mainstay of care in our community, delivering primary care, dental, nutrition, and behavioral health care to patients of all ages and backgrounds.  

Community health centers like Watts Healthcare are uniquely suited to serve Black, Brown and immigrant Californians because they are rooted in our communities.  We build trust with the people we serve, without judgment or concern for their ability to pay.

Poor and unhoused people, undocumented Californians, people with HIV, seniors, members of the LGBT community, and people struggling with addiction are all treated with care.  

But because those we serve lack wealth and political power, the work of community clinics - also known as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) - like Watts Healthcare isn’t treated equally by our healthcare system. Community clinics are severely underfunded.  As a result, staff are underpaid, exhausted and burned out; turnover is frequent. Many of us have advanced degrees but are earning barely above the minimum wage. I often find myself doing the jobs of two or three people.

Just when our community needed us most, Watts Healthcare was forced to lay off a third of our staff – doctors, medical and dental assistants, case managers, and other essential healthcare workers – and close the doors to at least three locations. At Watts Healthcare I work at House of Uhuru, supporting individuals struggling with substance abuse and children born with chemical dependencies. Already short staffed, just four of us remained to serve patients 7 days a week 24 hours a day when members of our team were kept home with COVID infections. It was a real challenge, but somehow I found the strength within to keep going, even when I didn’t think it was possible.

It breaks my heart to know that without more funding, South Central Los Angeles’ first substance use treatment center - founded in 1969 - could soon close its doors for good even as another crisis grips our community. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like Fentanyl soared by 800 percent among Black Americans between 2014 and 2017, and that was before the despair of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

That’s why clinic workers, clinic leaders like Watts Healthcare CEO Michael Johnson, and community allies are demanding investment in clinics serving communities of color. We are partnering with State Senator Bob Hertzberg and Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo on SB 1014, legislation to invest in community clinic workers who come from the community to serve our community.  SB 1014 provides training opportunities and increased wages and benefits for community clinic workers so that we can expand the community clinic workforce and the services we provide. It means FQHCs throughout the state – whether they’re in urban or rural areas, large or small, or differ in the populations they serve – can have the funding necessary to improve access to life-saving care. 

I keep fighting because I have to share that strength and motivating spirit with my patients, some who are coming out of incarceration, dealing with homelessness, some are mothers who have lost their children and are doing everything they can to regain custody of their kids. I encourage them and tell them they are deserving of health and full lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.” I believe that my patients and our community are deserving of health and opportunities to live full lives. Healthcare justice is within reach, and investing in community clinics and passing SB 1014 are how we can make it happen.

Category: Community