Senior centers anticipate strain from nearby closures
Reported on: June 19, 2010
Milton Pellot loves his senior center. The longtime Washington Heights resident relies on the STAR Senior Center for affordable and healthy food, companionship with fellow seniors, and friendly games of dominoes and billiards.
Pellot, 68, says his wife is also a fan of STAR. “She doesn’t want me at home, so she sends me to the center,” he joked.
Many Washington Heights seniors like Pellot breathed a sigh of relief when none of their community’s senior centers made the city’s list of 50 to be shut down on June 30. Local senior center directors, on the other hand, foresee major issues on the horizon if the New York City Department for the Aging moves forward with its plan.
Harlem, Washington Heights’ immediate neighbor to the south, will be one of the communities hardest hit by the closures. Of the 15 senior centers slated to close in Manhattan, 11 are in Harlem. That will leave more than 600 Harlem seniors looking for services at other centers in Harlem and, for many, in Washington Heights.
Fern Hertzberg, 54, is executive director of ARC XVI Fort Washington, a senior center in Washington Heights. Her center is already serving seniors traveling from other communities since the city’s May 10 announcement of planned closures.
“Closing 50 centers puts pressure not only on the communities where the centers close but on the entire system,” said Hertzberg. “People have started coming from the Bronx since they know their centers are closing.” Hertzberg noted that while her food budget covers 140 meals to be served each day, ARC Fort Washington is already serving 150.
The Department for the Aging said in a statement that while it hoped to avoid cuts, Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposed budget left the agency few options. “We embarked on this painful process because the state’s budget cut left us no other option. We are committed to doing what we can for the seniors and center staff whose lives will be affected, and will be providing all possible assistance through this difficult time.”
In prioritizing which centers to close, the department used three criteria: centers that serve fewer than 30 meals per day, part-time and satellite centers, and centers with poor records of service and management. Geography and considerations of how many centers would be closed in one neighborhood were not taken into account.
The department has promised that it will provide transportation to seniors who cannot access other centers in their communities due to physical limitations and proximity. For many Harlem seniors, that will mean bus trips to centers in Washington Heights.
“There are many issues with busing people to other communities,” said Timothy Hunt, executive director of Citizens Care Senior Center in Harlem. “Issues of cultural sensitivity have to be considered when you bus seniors to another area.” Hunt’s Citizen Care headquarters and six satellite senior centers, which serve more than 400 seniors, are all set to be shuttered at the end of the month.
At a June 17 rally on West 175 Street and Wadsworth Avenue, more than 50 seniors from Washington Heights and Harlem, local politicians and community leaders called on the city and state governments to reverse the proposed cuts.
Ralph Little, 55, joined his 78-year-old mother at the rally. Little’s mother and aunt rely on Wilson Major Morris Community Center at 459 W. 152nd St. in Harlem, only three blocks from Washington Heights. “I hope and pray it doesn’t get shut down,” said Little.
Little and his mother will have to wait and see how the budget process plays out.