When Anna, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives alone in the Bronx despite numerous health problems, couldn’t leave the house one recent afternoon, she dialed the number she knew best in hopes of getting a hot, kosher meal delivered.
Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, says that as DFTA switches to a regional system for case management contracts from 32 contracts citywide to 23, some 3,500 cases have fallen through the cracks because the regions are too large. "It’s a horrible transition," says Sackman, who fears similar problems with the meal delivery reformulation. "We say going from 97 contracts to 20 is very radical. There has to be a middle ground."
“She called the center where she comes every day for lunch because this was the number she knew,” said Bayla Lovens, director of the Moshulu center, which serves about 200 senior meals six days a week. “But we were short on staff and didn’t have anyone to bring her lunch. We were not able to come through for this woman.”
It’s a scenario that advocates for the elderly fear could become more widespread if New York City implements a slew of budget cuts and sweeping changes to the provision of services to the elderly that are expected to save nearly $20 million in spending by the Department for the Aging (DFTA). It includes reducing the number of Meals on Wheels providers and regionalizing distribution and eliminating a $2.1 million referral program, nearly half of which is administered by Jewish organizations. At the same time, the city Housing Authority plans to shut more than 100 senior centers in its buildings that are run by DFTA.
The cuts are part of an across-the-board reduction ordered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in response to a looming budget deficit of $3 billion-$5 billion in 2010 and 2011 due to declining Wall Street revenues and real estate transactions, among other factors.
While it is standard operating procedure for a mayor to propose budget cuts that are later restored in negotiations with the City Council, a looming deficit requiring sacrifices throughout city government — even to sacred cows like public schools and housing — makes the prospect for restoration bleak.
“Certainly, at the end of the day, some of these funds will be restored, “ said Ron Soloway, who is in charge of lobbying government on behalf of UJA-Federation agencies. “But it is very difficult in this environment to restore all these programs.”
Soloway said about $700,000 in funds earmarked for Holocaust survivors’ counseling and referral services was also on the chopping block, as well as funds to aid seniors in naturally occurring retirement communities.
The cuts come at a time when the city is projecting a 44.2 increase in the elderly population (ages 65 and up) in the next two decades. A report by the Department of City Planning predicts that in 2030 the elderly will comprise 14.8 percent of the city population, up from 11.7 percent in 2000.
Jews make up a substantial portion of that population because of the postwar immigrant boom and the later boom of Russian immigrants in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of whom were middle-aged or elderly.
A study by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and UJA-Federation based on data from the 2000 census and 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York, found that more than one-third of all people over 65 living at the poverty level in the five boroughs were Jewish, or some 77,100 people.
The Meals on Wheels program at Mosholu was transferred to a larger organization, Regional Aid for Interim Needs, Inc., as part of a controversial program to reduce from 17 to three the number of Bronx contractors distributing the meals. RAIN now handles the majority of meals in the borough with two of those three contracts.
To reduce expenses, some seniors receive several frozen meals in semi-weekly deliveries rather than daily deliveries. Any recipient, however, can request the daily hot meals.
Critics say the program has only saved about $200,000 (DFTA says the sum is closer to $500,000) and has the effect of phasing out close neighborhood involvement by organizations that know their clients and their cultural and physical needs. They stress that the daily food deliveries are a way to keep tabs on the welfare of seniors and they worry that, in the interim between the delivery of frozen meals, a senior in need of immediate aid may go undetected.
The city now plans to reduce from 98 to 20 the number of Meals on Wheels contractors in all boroughs, even as demand soars. In the past eight years the number of meals served has nearly tripled, from 6,000 to 17,000.
In a wide-ranging phone interview with The Jewish Week on Tuesday, the commissioner of the Department for the Aging, Edwin Mendez-Santiago, said that making changes to do more with less now will prepare the city for the coming boom in demand for elderly services.
“New York invests more in services for the aging than any city in the nation, but we also have to look at ways to make our investment more effective,” said the commissioner. “In the next 20 years there will be more people over 65 than there are in our schools. We need to transform our network and look at ways to make our programs more relevant to today’s older people.”
Mendez-Santiago said seniors today were looking for more than just hot lunches and bingo, but also ways to enhance their quality of life.
“There are generational changes, different wants, needs and interests,” he said. We have to look at promoting activities like tai chi, civic engagement and other health and wellness programs … like exercises to increase and improve balance to avoid falls that are so damaging to older people.”
Asked how the city could plan these enhanced programs while the Housing Authority has proposed closing 101 senior centers in its buildings — about a third of the total number of city-funded centers — Mendez-Santiago said he was hopeful the closings would be averted in the budget process but blamed a lack of federal funding for the shortfalls.
“We haven’t seen an increase in federal funding in 20 years,” said the commissioner. “We need to make this a federal issue. Longevity is something that concerns the whole nation.” Mendez-Santiago said the city’s request for proposals from private companies that are able to handle thousands of meals, as opposed to small community groups, would result in healthier and better-quality meals.
“A contractor that serves 10,000 meals a day will not only have better pricing but be better able to meet [the seniors’] needs than a contractor serving a couple of hundred meals a day,” he said. “The trend is for bigger contracts that give the consumer choice.”
But when distribution of kosher meals to the elderly in the Bronx was taken away from local community councils who prepared them in their kitchens and placed them in the hands of RAIN, in cooperation with kosher caterers, the results left much to be desired in the eyes of many consumers.
“The Bronx experience has not been as wonderful as we hoped it would be,” said Soloway of UJA-Federation. “We would like to see the quality of that food improved moving forward.”
The Jewish Association of Services to the Aged plans to compete for one of the contracts to deliver meals, he said. “We are hoping that JASA [will get the contract] and new providers will be identified who will provide excellent kosher food options.”
As to the elimination of the funding for the Extended Services Program, which pays for social service employees in about a dozen local Jewish community councils and several non-Jewish groups, Mendez-Santiago said he hoped the program’s role in procuring government services and entitlements for seniors could be filled by other services, such as the city’s “311” information and referral hotline.
Advocates for seniors have held protests at City Hall to protest the cuts. On their agenda is a call for DFTA to be exempt from across-the-board cuts, publicizing their concern that senior centers within the new regional system will have to compete with each other for limited funds and a call to make all City Council grants for elderly programs, which are currently up for renewal annually, permanent.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has raised concerns over the cuts, declined comment through a spokesman on Tuesday, saying only that negotiations were ongoing.
Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, says that as DFTA switches to a regional system for case management contracts from 32 contracts citywide to 23, some 3,500 cases have fallen through the cracks because the regions are too large.
"It’s a horrible transition," says Sackman, who fears similar problems with the meal delivery reformulation. "We say going from 97 contracts to 20 is very radical. There has to be a middle ground."