Abe Rosen, an octogenarian with cloudy eyes and a stiff smile, has lived in Howard Beach for the past 50 years. Rosen said he has been through hard times, but for the last 10 years he’s found support at the Howard Beach Senior Center, where he eats nearly everyday.
Rosen joined nearly 200 seniors gathered at the center, at 156-45 84th Street, on Wednesday to rally with civic leaders and elected officials against a state budget proposal that would force 105 senior centers throughout the city to close. Additional rallies, including one in Woodhaven, will be held throughout this week and the next.
“It would be criminal to close one center,” Rosen said. “Not one senior should suffer.”
The Howard Beach Senior Center an- nounced the rally on Monday, giving seniors only two days notice, but Assistant Director Judy Ascherman—who crosses the line into seniority in a few months—wasn’t surprised by the nearly packed room. “We’re a viable center, we have a lot of people who are really active,” she said.
The center opened in 1976, a few years after the federal government established the Older Americans Act, which was meant to improve the lives of elderly citizens. “It’s not just a recreational thing, these were originally opened as a nutrition center because seniors weren’t eating healthy, and the same thing is happening now,” Ascherman said.
Director Ike Albala told the crowd that he remembered a time before the centers when senior weren’t getting the support they needed. “Seniors weren’t getting enough to eat and they would settle for whatever they could get,” he said. “Some would go so far as to settle for pet food.”
According to Community Board 10 Chairperson Elizabeth Braton, Community Board 10 has almost 23,000 people over the age of 60*. In Howard Beach alone, there are over 9,000 seniors, making it the “oldest” neighborhood in the borough, according to Monsignor Alfred LoPinto. After the closures, CB 10 will have one senior center in its jurisdiction. More than 40 percent of the city’s senior centers face closure, which will leave more than 8,000 seniors without these services.
“It’s not just mindboggling, it’s unconscionable,” she said.
This Friday, in Woodhaven, another rally will be taking place. The center, run by Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services, has been closed for months of renovations. The rally was originally scheduled as a celebratory re-opening of the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Senior Center, at 78-15 Jamaica Avenue. Its grand reopening may now be short-lived. It’s on the Mayor’s list of centers that will be closed if funding is cut.
The Woodhaven Residents' Block Associa- tion has called on residents to gather at the
center this Friday at noon to show support for the area's seniors.
"The senior center is a home away from home for so many people," said WRBA Di- rector Roger Hennin, who is also a member of the senior center. "These cuts are terrible. When this center closes, it will really hurt a lot of people's quality of life."
The list of centers facing closure was released by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after Governor Anthony Cuomo proposed budget shifted a source of discretionary funding, called Title XX, that has been used to support senior centers for more than 20 years. His proposal, to siphon the funds toward other, federally mandated spending, is not new.
Governor David Paterson made the same proposal last year. Paterson proposed using
the Title XX funds to pay for senior services, rather than senior centers—which would have been forced to close. His efforts were unsuccessful.
The Title XX grant is roughly $102 million of Federal funding to the State. Adult protective serves receive $66 million of that, while $36 million is allotted locally, usually for discretionary spending. Under the new budget, that $36 million will be spent on child welfare services, which is federally man- dated but usually paid for with other funds.
The mandatory child welfare spending is normally split between the city and state, with Albany paying 62 percent, and the city covering 38 percent.
The $25 million in Title XX funds that NYC receives will now be spent on child welfare programs, but will be included in the State's 62 percent share of child welfare spending.
“The Governor's Title XX proposal achieves state savings while supporting a federal mandate to protect abused children and serve families in crisis,” State Department of Budget Spokesperson Jeffery Gordon said. “The City will continue to receive the same amount of Federal Title XX funding in total.”
While the $25 million will be spent in the city, it will essentially be taken from Bloomberg’s pocket to cut Cuomo’s spending.
Either Bloomberg will have to come up with an additional 25 million to save the senior centers, or Cuomo will have to find money to fund child welfare services. For now, Bloomberg has released a list of senior centers that will be closed. Some see this as a strong-arm tactic to increase the Mayor’s bargaining power.
“[The Mayor] is using the seniors while we are in the middle of negotiations,” said Jo Ann Shapiro, Chief of Staff for Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park).
Shapiro had arrived to the rally in Howard Beach to find two seniors who couldn’t find the door, she said. They told her they were there to join the center for the first time.
“This is not about closing senior centers that aren’t working,” she told the crowd. “This is a vibrant, thriving, growing center. The money will be restored.”
According to spokesperson Nick Roloson, Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) favors passing legislation that circumvents the shift in funds by making the senior center funding mandatory in Title XX funding, rather than discretionary.
“When money is cut from these programs, these services are put in serious jeopardy and are at risk.” Miller said. “Enough is enough. I am fully committed to ensuring that the discretionary Title XX money is used to care for our seniors as it has for so many years.”
Senator Joseph Addabbo has proposed methods for the city to increase its revenue, freeing up new funds for the senior centers.
Addabbo has proposed collecting outstanding debts and fines by waving late fees and penalties or utilizing city workers more efficiently, instead of “contracting.” He suggested that if the City used its sheriffs more than the outside marshals, it would save significant amounts of money.
“There is enough money to keep senior centers open in the city,” he said. “Our senior centers do not have to close, regard- less of the amount of money the city receives from the state budget.”
Nevertheless, Addabbo said he is committed to ensure Title XX funds are used for senior centers. “Why mess with tradition,” he said. After the rally, he rushed off to Albany, where his colleagues were preparing to debate the budget.
Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Jamacia), on her way into a budget hearing in Albany, said that she doesn’t believe the Gov- ernor would allow the senior centers to close. “I just don’t think he’ll let that happen,” she said. “We’re trying really hard to save the senior centers and day care and all the things that matter.”
As the rally ended in Howard Beach, the center welcomed the crowd, the politicians and the press to stay for lunch. Small groups of seniors helped each other fill out petitions as Abe Rosen sauntered back and forth among the crowd, making small talk with other members.
What You Can Do
Aside from writing or calling your local representative, Councilmember Eric Ulrich suggests dialing 311. “The Mayor loves 311,” he said. “So call. Say ‘I have a message for the Mayor. Stop using seniors as pawns and don’t close my senior center.’” If you don’t have email, Carol of the Howard Beach Senior Center will assist you in sending emails to your representatives on Thursday morning. Stop by the center to participate.
Update: We incorrectly said 23,000 people over the age of 60 live in Queens. There are 23,000 people over the age of 60 within Community Board 10 while approximately 400,000 seniors reside in Queens. Also, it was Monsignor Alfred LoPinto who claimed Howard Beach is the oldest neighborhood in the borough.