By JoAnne Viviano

A central Ohio coalition that seeks to reduce the region's high infant-mortality rate has received a grant of about $991,000 to help 50 pregnant women in extremely low-income areas find and pay for housing.

The grant from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency was awarded to CelebrateOne last month and announced on Tuesday. It will fund a two-year "Healthy Beginnings" pilot program that will provide rental assistance as well as health care and social services to women who are homeless or in unstable living conditions.

A goal is to determine whether providing stable housing with other supports will reduce infant mortality. If so, hopes are that the program will be replicated in Ohio and across the nation.

"It is very hard to prioritize your health, the needs of your family. It's very hard to prioritize anything other than survival, without housing," said Erika Clark Jones, CelebrateOne executive director. "And we want our moms to do more than survive, we want them to thrive. And that's why it's important for us."

Partnering with CelebrateOne on the project are the Homeless Families Foundation, Children's HealthWatch, Nationwide Children's Hospital, CareSource and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Clark Jones said that CelebrateOne will also work closely with Church and Community Development for All People, a United Methodist nonprofit which recently partnered with CareSource to conduct a similar pilot program involving 10 women who all carried their babies to term.

Infant mortality refers to the death of a child before its first birthday. For 2016, Ohio's rate was 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, with Franklin County's rate at 8.7, according to the Ohio Department of Health. That compares to a 2015 national rate of 5.9.

Race discrepancies are extreme, with the statewide rate at 5.8 for white babies, 7.3 for Hispanic babies and 15.2 for black babies.

The state's goal is a 6.0 rate or lower in every race and ethnic group.

For the pilot project, the infant mortality rate among the 50 women who receive housing assistance will be compared with a cohort of 50 women who receive the other supports without housing help. Results will be presented to the Ohio Commission on Infant Mortality that was created by the legislature in 2014.

The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority will provide rental assistance and 10 units of public housing in the Sawyer and Trevitt Heights complexes on the Near East Side, according to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. Holly Holtzen, chief operating officer for the agency, said other housing locations will be chosen by the women receiving help.

Holtzen called housing a basic human need and said she is hopeful that the CelebrateOne program will move Ohio closer to its infant mortality reduction goals.

"Access to health care and getting those medical services is obviously very important and necessary, but really addressing the environment and underlying factors can also lead to health improvements," she said.

The Finance Agency listed infant mortality as one of four "vulnerable populations" focus areas in an Ohio Housing Needs Assessment report for the fiscal year ending June 30.

The agency had allocated $1 million for a pilot program that would seek to reduce infant mortality through housing assistance and support services. It called for proposals in July, and CelebrateOne rose to the top of the six projects received. Holtzen said the project has a robust plan to help women retain housing once the program ends and a strong project-evaluation team.

Along with the funds committed by the Finance Agency, CareSource has dedicated $250,000 to the program. Clark Jones said. CelebrateOne is working to raise an additional $185,000.

(c)2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)