Aging in NYC: Henry Street Settlement & the Concern Over Senior Center Funding

“Seniors have amazing needs. And in order to serve them best, Henry Street must take the pulse of the community and then design programming around that,” said Ms. Janet Fischer, the Chief Program Administrator of Senior Services at Henry Street Settlement. This statement embodies the core mission of this human service agency’s work with the aging populations in New York City. However, with each passing year since the economic recession began, government budgets increasingly challenge it and many other organizations’ capacity to serve our most vulnerable citizens. This year is no different; many human services programs are again going to operate under-funded, under-resourced, and under-staffed. Some are threatened for complete elimination because they cannot produce strong enough results with so little means. At Henry Street, public funding often provides just enough to sustain their senior programs. To merely expand those to include other helpful resources such as a computer lab in their senior center or to be able to offer meals on Sundays requires a lot of effort reaching out to private donors and foundations for grants, many of which have also dried up since the economic downturn.

Henry Street Settlement is located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and has a rich 118 year history of serving the neighborhood’s poor and at-risk. The senior services division has been instrumental in organizing advocacy initiatives at Henry Street in order to integrate the wide-array of programs offered. Ms. Roxana Tetenbaum, who worked with seniors as a mental health social worker at Henry Street for five years was recently named the first Coordinator of Advocacy and Community Resources. She is tasked with orchestrating the advocacy initiatives for all of Henry Street’s programs and services. Currently, Henry Street serves approximately 50,000 New Yorkers each year, in the areas of Youth ProgramsSenior ServicesPrimary & Behavioral HealthJob Training & Placement, Transitional & Supportive Housing,and the Abrons Arts Center/Performing & Visual Arts.[1] She hopes “to bring the street back to Henry Street,”  by emphasizing the vibrancy of this one-of-a-kind neighborhood through the organization’s comprehensive programming.

The Senior Services division is comprised of four main programs that receive funding from every level of government and private funders, each reaching out to a diverse set of clients and their needs:

  • Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORC)-Henry Street’s NORC operates out of the Vladeck public housing complex, which is located within blocks of Henry Street’s doors. Clients receive advocacy services ranging from translating documents to mental health counseling and heart disease treatment. This program provides a holistic approach to care that involves case management, nursing, and housing services with the goal of decreasing institutionalism and hospitalization. While Henry Street’s program is not slated for cuts this year, the City has proposed to cut the NORC program by $900,000 this year for 10 programs in the City not funded through DFTA’s NORC RFP process.
  • Meals on Wheels- Henry Street provides homebound seniors six delivered meals per week. It is available for seniors age 60 and above and serves clients in Community Districts 1,2,3,5, and 6 in Manhattan. This program is funded by DFTA and Citymeals-on-Wheels. Citymeals-on-Wheels is requesting a restoration grant in the amount of $1 million for the fiscal year.
  • Senior Companion Program– This is a federally funded program that matches volunteers to seniors in need in order to provide companionship and support. Henry Street currently has 123 Senior Companions that have provided 115,604 hours of service to 331 seniors in all five boroughs. [2] This program is not slated for budget cuts at the federal level.
  • Good Companions Senior Center- is a multicultural senior program located in the Vladeck Public Housing complex and provides a stable place for seniors to receive a host of enrichment services, daily meals, and socialization. This senior center is funded by DFTA and supplemented with private funding. While Title XX funding was restored at the State level, the mayor’s budget still proposes to eliminate some senior centers around the City. Food costs at senior centers are projected to be cut by 4.5 million. HSC and its partners are asking the City to restore $19.145 million for senior centers, which includes operating, space, and transportation costs as well as budget restorations from previous years of cuts.

These programs provide a sense of dignity among seniors and their families because services are provided in a local community setting. For instance, Henry Street’s NORC program, like many at Henry Street, provides language services to their clients because 74 percent are non-English speaking (57 percent Hispanic, 28 percent Chinese, and 25 percent Other). Senior services providers not only maintain or increase the quality of life for seniors and their families, they also provide tangible benefits like improved nutrition and better mental and physical health. And by focusing on preventive care and keeping seniors out of expensive nursing homes, they save families and taxpayers significant amounts of money each year. For instance, malnourished adult patients cost $228 per day compared to $138 for well-nourished patients. When the costs of medications and tests were added, the costs for the malnourished patients rose to 308.9 percent compared to the well nourished patients. [3]

A basement located in a public housing complex may not seem like an environment likely to be able to support and provide hope and resources to seniors who have lived turbulent lives, but those working with the seniors at Henry Street have dedicated themselves to the needs of this specific population and know them well. This makes all the difference. “Many clients have gone through severe deprivation their whole lives and find it alarming to even be asked, ‘How do you feel?’ because no one has ever bothered to ask them,” said Mr. Robert Tobing, Interim Director of Senior Services. Henry Street makes the commitment and has the expertise to help those who have been neglected or are at-risk. However, in order to do that best, adequate resources are needed.

As large numbers of baby boomers age, the need for senior centers and services will continue to grow steadily in the coming years. I know that I would want those who have worked with seniors for decades and who continue to work with this unique population to be the ones who provide care for my parents and eventually me. Yet, if government continues to whittle away at both life and cost saving programs and services, then it will end up costing the public more both today and in the future. Politicians should keep in mind during this budget season that seniors have a broad set of needs that requires the funding to match and that this is not the time to scale back much needed services. They may also want to remember that seniors vote.

Contributed by Stephanie Hakes
of the Human Services Council of NYC

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About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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