Seniors Fight For Their Centers

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By Lillian Rizzo

Almost every day, Providencia Rosario walks a short distance from her home in the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side to eat lunch and dinner and hang out with some friends. Her routine is generally the same. Rosario spends her time at the Henry Street Settlement Good Companions Senior Center, located in the Vladeck Houses. The center is open to anyone over 60 and provides three hot meals and activities daily."I come here almost every day; otherwise I would be home alone and I'd feel lonely," said Rosario, 82.
She attends one of the seven senior centers on the Lower East Side, all of which were threatened last year with either budget cuts or having their doors shuttered permanently.

Every year, the state budget must be passed by June 30. Recently, this has become a task for New York's governor, due to the troubled economy. Cuts have to be made, and often the Title XX fund, which provides the Department for the Aging with money for services such as senior centers, is targeted. To save their centers, senior citizens sign petitions and write thousands of letters to the governor while local politicians fight for the seniors' interests.

"This year, more seniors in my district wrote to Governor Cuomo than any other council district," said Council Member Margaret Chin of District 1 in Lower Manhattan in a press release. "This budget dance has to stop. It is unfair to our seniors and it is unfair to our communities."

For the last two years, the executive budget has proposed a $25 million cut to Title XX, which could shut down 105 of the city's 256 senior centers.

This year, seniors and politicians are preparing early for any proposed cuts to senior citizens' programs. Thursday, Dec. 1, council members met in front of City Hall to make a preemptive statement to the governor, demanding he stop trying to tap into senior citizen funding. The city also asked seniors to write in, and they have received over 15,000 letters.

"We've just asked Governor Cuomo not to waste our time, but save our time to do meaningful things," said Po-Ling Ng, assistant executive director of the CPC senior center at 168 Grand St. "Our seniors and staff worry too much. It's really abuse-we don't feel secure in our senior life anymore."

Even before City Council and seniors called on the governor to prevent budget cuts this month, Ng attended State Sen. Daniel Squadron's town hall meeting in November to bring up Title XX. She praised the state senator for standing up for senior citizens last year and asked him to do the same this year.

"Year after year, Title XX and senior centers are the first programs on the budget chopping block," said Squadron in an email. "We've been successful in protecting Title XX in the past, but this year, senior centers cannot be put at risk. Some programs should simply never be on the chopping block in the first place."

Manhattan has 60 senior centers, with 11 below 14th Street.

"The Department for the Aging funds nearly a third of its senior center budget through the use of Title XX discretionary funds," said Department for the Aging Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli in a statement. "Any loss of state funding would impact seniors profoundly-we would potentially have to close upward of 105 senior centers across the five boroughs."

Not only are senior centers worried about being closed, they also fear any more funding cuts. Due to the economy, they have already been forced to keep tighter budgets, sacrificing activities and programs that keep seniors active. Center directors also point out that fundraising isn't easy in an ailing economy, either.

"The Title XX money not coming through would be devastating for senior centers, ours included," said David Garza, executive director of Henry Street's senior center. "Alternative sources of funding are just nonexistent in this particular economic climate."

Henry Street's senior center is usually packed during lunch and dinnertime, and when the seniors aren't eating they are taking part in activities such as bingo, tai chi and computer classes.

"I come here to hang out with my buddies," said Charles Garcia, 64, at Henry Street. He often plays pool or dominoes with his friends, and also stops by for lunch or dinner. "It's like a boys club, but for old guys."

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