Black elders hungry on life’s margins
Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.
A brief overview of East New York follows based on city statistics, studies and typical news accounts.
From the New York City Health Provider Partnership Brooklyn Community Needs Assessment, Final Report October 3, 2014: In Brownsville, Coney Island, and East New York, key informants and focus group participants of one study described a poor resource base, including lack of healthy food and green space, community programs, and funding for needed services. Health providers described delayed care and low expectations.
Overall, community members and providers that participated in the CNA clearly recognized the impact that poverty and lack of community resources have on health and well-being. Low-income Brooklyn residents describe very stressful lives, with concerns that include, but are not limited to, employment, housing (which is in increasingly short supply with the gentrification of many Brooklyn neighborhoods), safety, access to healthy food, and appropriate resources for children and teens. A number of African American communities report poor access to services. Immigrant communities reported workdays may be 16 hours or more.
East New York is 52 percent Black, 37 percent Hispanic, 3 percent White, and 2 percent Other, according to stats on nyc.gov. The life expectancy is 77.7. The life expectancy a few miles away in Borough Park is 83.5.
Assuming that the death rates from the five neighborhoods with the highest income are achievable in East New York and Starrett City, it is estimated that 40 percent of of deaths that have occurred in East New York could have been avoided. The injury assault rate in East New York is almost twice the citywide rate.
Drug, and, or, alcohol-related hospitalizations reflect acute and chronic consequences of substance misuse. In East New York and Starrett City, Hospitalization rates because of drug and, or, alcohol-related hospitalization are higher in East New York than the rates in Brooklyn and the rest of the City.
Death rates due to homicide and HIV are more than twice the city wide rates.
A Daily News May, 2012 story purporting to analyze crime statistics reported that "gunplay is sharply segregated, with residents of East New York, Brooklyn, dodging bullets with a regularity that would be incomprehensible to upper East Siders." Also in that story was a telling comment by a Sade Kirkland, 21, identified as a resident who worked as a makeup artist: “Gunshots in this area’s just like hearing the doorbell. People across the street are killing each other for nonsense.”
"East New York is not a neighborhood of yoga studios, trendy coffee shops and pet grooming spas – yet," read the lead of a AmNewYork story published September, 2015. "However real estate developers who have been eyeing the area, which offers affordable real estate prices and easy access to mass transit and major highways, may soon change that."
The news accounts and the official stats were on this writer's mind when he interviewed Jacqueline Jones. She is both a scholar and a community activist and she lives in East New York and works in Brownsville. Jones, who has several college degrees, has been involved in care giving more than 14 years, working for city government agencies and nonprofits. At the time of the interview she was working for a nonprofit and studying for a doctorate. She was one of several interviewees who suggested, because of similarities in demographics and community dynamics, that this writer consider both East New York and Brownsville for this article. The community statistics are comparable though Brownsville has more blacks and less Hispanics than East New York, and the life expectancy is a few years less than that of East New York.
Jones real-world community activism, years of professional caregiving experience and her scholarship and research led this writer to believe that she could provide a pragmatic assessment and down-to-earth insight.
Jacqueline Jones, not her real name, was interviewed several days after she was mugged by a teenager. The violence had stunned her, momentarily challenging her equanimity. After several efforts over several weeks with the PR department of her nonprofit agency about this writer interviewing her, Jones and this writer decided that it might not be in her best interests to be identified at this time. As it turned out in the course of the interviews, we never discussed her employer but planned to continue with the anonymity.
"Social work can be dirty business too, especially the business of social work," said Jones, responding to a comment from this reporter about the realpolitik of teaching in higher education with all its vexing problems. She initially started her career "giving direct service as a case manager, case planner, where I'm dealing one-on-one with a client," she said. Fourteen years later she is "balancing the needs of the client with the needs of the agency, and the resources that we have. It becomes a tricky and a complicated situation."
Jones began her career working with clients who were HIV positive and those who had the disease. "I saw a lot of death," she recalled. Now she works primarily with seniors though one of her professionals goals is to deal more with troubled youth, like the one who attacked her. East New York and Brownsville have a lot of problems and "it's difficult for city officials to come up with a solutions because of the problems," she said. She was asked to identify the problems. She was blunt.
"One has to do with the fact that these communities and their individuals are marginalized. When you talk about elderly people, now, who are currently living there, many were probably, sorry to say, were probably doing drugs during their prime of life so they've never really worked nor had savings, the pensions, and even the social security tax and all of that stuff to get any type of real benefit later on" when they were considering how to retire. Jones was talking about seniors who did not have fixed incomes.
"All they're getting is the very minimum from the Federal Government, which is SSD, because more than likely they fit because of some type of disability, whether it's medical, or mental. I think the minimum is $733."
Those who worked as "home attendants, for example, or they worked off the books, they still don't have any savings and they still don't have any real pension or money from the government," Jones said. "They have a very substandard form of living. The maximum they can likely get is $194 a month for food stamps and $733 in cash from the Federal Government SSD (Social Security Disability)."
The average one bedroom apartment can cost $1,100, $1,200, Jones estimated, "and that's in East New York and Brownsville. There's no way they can afford to live like that. They can't do anything with that money so they depend on being subsidized by the city," she said. "They are not eating out. They are absolutely dependent on pantry. That is how I spend my day, is to make sure that I find pantries where people can go to supplement their income. Even with $733, they have to pay rent, they have to pay utilities, they have to pay co-pay for health insurance, so by the time it's the end of the month there is no money. Pantry is vital."
Yet, because of the snail like recovery of economy, pantries in East New York and Brownsville have been getting substantially smaller donations form charities as they have in the past. "It's really still the Black churches that are still giving food to these communities in the form of pantries. What exactly are they giving? Canned goods," she said. Yet, the sodium in can foods for elderly seniors can be harmful. "They're not eating properly at this stage in their lives where they really should be. Diabetes and high blood pressure become issues for them."
"The circumstances just add on top of each other and that is why we have the socioeconomic situation we have in Brownsville and you see in East New York. Because no one really adequately address the different pieces that create the problem, that is, the substandard living of so many, or they don't know how to fix things because there's so many layers of the problem," Jones said.
She does not let the complexity of the problems distract her from focusing on what she is suppose to do for the nonprofit see works for. "I am just dealing with a specific subgroup of Brownsville, for example. I can't really touch the whole problem, just a part. I have to do that because, if I don't, then at some point I can feel that I'm not being effective if I go in with a very broad and grand view of the problem and the solution. Just gnawing away at a little piece and being happy with the impact and seeing that success, I'm at peace with that for now."
"I remember when I started working for the city. I also was responsible for getting people public assistance, you know, their benefits, and they'd come in and I would see generations of families that have been in the system. No kind of shame, no kind of, I'm trying to get out of where I am. Instead, I'm here to add my daughter, or I'm here to add my daughter's daughter; I'm here to add this one, that one, and the third."
"You see generations of them and you see this life of living marginally on $194 and $733, and, probably, many doing illegal stuff to supplement their income because there's no way that they can live on that. They gotta' find the money," she said.
"Petty crimes are what they do to supplement income," she continued "We do not agree with it, but they're not going to go hungry either. If they can't get it the legal way, they're going to get it other ways. Obviously I don't agree with their rationale, but I can understand it."
"You also have situations where people are severely mentally ill, not being diagnosed, not really getting treatment. Those needs not being met, and, of course, substance abuse where all those needs are not being met. There are also a lot of shelters in Brownsville and East New York. There is already a population that is marginalized and they (she was referring to city government and city officials) are putting even more marginalized people in. It just adds to the problem: Marginalized individuals being put into a community that's already marginalized. I know they (city government agencies, city officials) feel like they're helping, but they're making the problem worse because there no other resources that are coming in."
Despite anticipation that gentrification is on the horizon for East New York, she doesn't believe it will ever happen. "Gentrification is not coming in,. You (she was referring to East New York) don't have the big bucks investing and the Starbucks and the big corporations following behind them coming in. Plus, the kind of people that are coming in to the community, these are also marginalized individuals," she reiterated. "People that were formally homeless, people that were in mental institutions, formerly incarcerated, all low income, that are coming home."
"It's more of the same that are being dumped into areas like Brownsville, as opposed to a Flatbush, a Crown Heights where I grew up, where you have yuppies coming in starting businesses and the big businesses following them into these neighborhoods, businesses like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts and The Gaps and all of that stuff, that are coming in to Brooklyn. East New York and Brownsville are not seeing that. I don't think they're going to see it ever."
Big investors get big tax cuts from the city and build supportive housing but the people whom they're bringing in are pretty much not from the community., she said. "This would have been an opportunity to actually give people in the neighborhood an opportunity to live in these brand new buildings since they've been here through years of living in substandard conditions," being ripped off by slumlords. That's not happening and the politicians that are giving out all these lands are very rude about it."
"They're not really informing the community (about the future consequences), and the community's not really asking questions or feel they (residents) don't have a voice to ask these questions, like, what are we suppose to be getting out of all this? Absolutely nothing. It's not really being beneficial to the community."
Away from her job, she goes after issues that irritate her. Like the lack of garbage cans. "There's absolutely no garbage cans. No garbage cans on the corners (of the street) where I live," she said. She frequently calls "311 and the sanitation department, bugging them for months, writing them, emailing them, getting the numbers of the supervisors of the sanitation people in my area. I'm going to continue to do that for the areas that I see that don't have any. I am going to keep bothering them. That's what you kind of have to do out here and most people don't have the time, or don't want to do that."
Many of the lights underneath the Livonia Avenue, Number 3 subway line are out or don't come on, so it's extremely dark at night, she said at the time of this interview. "That's another reason for crimes. With all the money that they spent to do this reconstruction, they didn't spend anything on elevators," she said referring to the MTA's major renovation project. "I work with seniors. It's an issue for them. They want to complain about it, so I'm trying to get them to have a meeting at our site and I can invite as much people in the neighborhood as possible because they're riled up."
"One of my clients was in the Attica Riots. He tells me stories all the time. A couple were in the (Black) Panther movement and got arrested for it, spent a lot of time in jail. They still have that spirit in them," she said, that kind of spirit that's missing with much of the rest of the population. "They (her clients) have this, I'll-beat-you-with-my-cane kind of attitude." Too many of the younger generation well below retirement age were apathetic, she said.
For some reason, she continued, the rebellious spirit of the '60s and '70s generations was not passed on. There are youth who will "beat you to a pulp" for stepping on their $300 or $400 sneakers, but are incapable of confronting the forces marginalizing their neighborhoods. "Where are they going to go? Where are they going to live? They can't work because they have no skills, and even if they did try to get one, they couldn't because they've had all those stints in jail. The priority is just not there for them to become involve in their communities. It's not there," she said.
Nevertheless, the said, there are young people like her, she is in her early 30s, born in the area who see what their community needs. "We've gone through our education system and we see the benefits and we're trying to get more people involved," she said. She said she imagine operating her own nonprofit agency in the area. This writer brought up her account of her mugging. "I wanted to kill that sixteen year old boy, and then I went through my process, as they say in social work. That was just me being angry for a couple of days." Her equanimity had returned in full force at the time of her interview.
"I really thought about it. I look at it initially like, that's the population that I would try to save. The elderly, we can give them the resources to live a comfortable life, but if we don't really deal with this new generation, then we continue to have the same crap where they're either making minimum wage, so they're not really having a quality of life now, and they're definitely not going to have it later on" because of thinking that Social Security probably won't be there by the time they "come of age."
"You continue the same stuff and you continue the same legacy of marginalization," she said.