Budget Cuts Put Senior Centers At Risk

Lunch at WaldRachel Ohm Lunch is served at Lillian Wald Senior Center on Avenue D on a recent afternoon. In the last year the number of lunches served at Wald has doubled to accommodate the closure of the nearby Jacob Riis Senior Center. “We don’t have enough chairs,” said Betsy Jacobson, the center’s director.

Earlier this month, the Department of the Aging released a list of 105 senior centers in the city that may be closing this year because of proposed budget cuts in Albany.

This could mean an influx of older New Yorkers into centers that remain open, fewer resources and less accessibility to services for those without transportation.

Last year, the city slated Lillian Wald Senior Center on Avenue D for closing, but it has remained open with funding from Community Council District 2 and private donations. To accommodate older East Villagers from Jacob Riis, another neighborhood center that closed, the 25 meals a day that Wald was serving last year has now more than doubled to around 50 to 55. Wald is now the only senior center in Alphabet City. “We don’t have enough chairs,” said Betsy Jacobson, the director of Wald. “We have people standing and eating and our numbers are probably going to continue to grow.”

The center applied for a grant renewal for continued funding from the City Council but as of now it is uncertain where money will come from after June 30. “There have been no increases in social security and food costs are going up,” Ms. Jacobson said. “For many people this becomes a major meal.”

Helene Greenstein, who is 67, has been coming to the center for the past two years since retiring from a jewelry manufacturing job. She said she would use the center regardless of its location because she can’t afford to go anywhere else. “I need the meals,” she said.

Fewer centers could also make existing resources more difficult to reach without access to cars or other convenient forms of transportation. Ernestina Lugo, 71, used to get meals at Jacob Riis on East 10th Street, but since it closed she has been coming to Wald. She said the change hasn’t affected her too much because her husband has a car and her mother lives near Wald, so she has a reason to come to the opposite end of the neighborhood. Jenny Albino, who is 64, lives across the street from Wald and comes daily with her 85-year-old mother. “It’s not that far to walk,” Ms. Albino said.

Lunch at WaldRachel Ohm Helene Greenstein, 67, eats lunch at Lillian Wald Senior Center. She says that if the center were to close there would be a void in the community.

Many are worried that there are still too few places in the community serving older East Villagers. Ms. Greenstein said she can’t believe that she worked for 40 years of her life and still can’t afford food. The center thus provides a source of some financial support for her as well as a chance to socialize.

“This is a $10 or $12 meal,” she said as she ate the chicken cacciatore and pasta being served for lunch on a recent Thursday. “I can’t have this everyday if I don’t come here. Most of my money goes to health insurance.”

“It’s not just a lunch club though,” she added. “Sometimes when you’re a senior and you don’t have a family or children you feel like you have no function. This is a reason to get dressed and put on some make-up.”

She said that living by herself has changed her eating habits. At home alone, she said, instead of cooking a meal she would have a piece of toast and cup of tea and that it was causing her to lose weight.

The center also hosts exercise classes and social events like day trips and bingo. Ms. Greenstein said she likes going to the jewelry making classes at Wald and was wearing a pair of pearl earrings she had made at the center.

Wald’s site manager, Angie Salgado, said that although the Riis closing has meant more lunches to serve at Wald and more activities to sponsor, the atmosphere hasn’t changed at all. “They’re still screaming out there,” she added with a laugh. In the main room, chairs were being rearranged and bingo cards laid on tables, ready for another busy afternoon.