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.
Cynthia Adams, not her real name, started looking for a good job two weeks after she and her husband had their first child. Adams was 28. Two years later she was hired by the New York City Housing Authority. “I started out with taking care of children, ages 6 through 12, which I had done for a period of maybe two years before I switched over to seniors.” She switched because of a better schedule working 9 to 5 hours.
Adams has been employed with NYCHA for more than 20 years and grew up in the Brownsville, East New York area. She is one of several sources interviewed for this article who strongly suggested that this writer include Brownsville. “Brownsville and East New York are very similar in terms of the dynamics that we’re talking about,” she said. “It’s like crossing the street, that’s all it is.”
She said that the New York City Housing Authority has been making qualitative improvements in seniors’ lives. “The quality is much better than it was, I would say, 10 years ago,” she said. “Repairs are being made much quicker than ever before, which is awesome.”
She offered an anecdote about a senior, 80, whose apartment had flooded and the senior procrastinated reporting the problem, which threatened to become a serious health issue. “It was over 9 months in her apartment. I think it might have been fear that kept her quiet. That’s with most seniors. If they don’t have someone to speak for them, they won’t get things done. They’re just sitting quietly.” The repairs were done in two months, which was fast, Adams said.
But she also said she was concerned about what appeared to her as the lack of public understanding about the consequences of the long term goals of the authority. One is the demand to reduce the size of housing apartments. NYCHA, for example, is adamant that one resident cannot live in a two-bedroom apartment. Residents, on the other hand, she said, are concerned about having adequate room for visits or even temporary long stays by kids and grandkids. Some consider their apartments legacies that they want to pass on to their kids.
The housing authority has and is focusing on ridding itself of programs and services that it deems unnecessary. She, of course, has no control and little influence over policy.
NYCHA is ready to close senior centers that are underused and to suspend services being ignored. “There’s so much going on in such a short time that it makes me wonder, am I the only one that’s seeing things change? I’m here because they (NYCHA) need documentation. I just do what they ask with the numbers, and I’m programming on a daily basis. They’re not looking at people anymore. They’re looking at numbers. If the numbers don’t match … then they’re thinking that services aren’t needed there.”
Nevertheless, she reiterated, quality is up and NYCHA can provide services much quicker. “Everything they (seniors) ask for, no problem They want art, I get them art. They want music, I can get it. They want this or that, I can get it.”
Yet, she added, “You come here this time next year, this might be a daycare or some kind of store.” Why? Because less seniors are taking advantage of the services provided by NYCHA, which acts like a real estate agency, that is, it wants to rent out underused facilities, “and that’s what they’re doing (or planning to do) to all the centers,” she said. “NYCHA used to get a federal budget. We haven’t had a federal budget over 10 more years or so, given a few numbers.”
She lamented that many seniors don’t take advantage of senior centers and available services and support. “There is a site in every development, whether it’s Langston Hughes, Howard Housing, Van Dyke, Tilden, Brownsville, Marcus Garvey. There is a center at every development, whether it’s for children, or seniors, or both. Yet, a lot don’t know that, and they could be living right upstairs (over the centers). That’s so sad. They don’t understand that what’s about to happen is going to be an ultimate change, completely, for this whole entire section called Brownsville East New York.”
“That’s the scary part. Scary for me,” she said. “That’s my bread and butter. Technically, they (communities) don’t get it. If they don’t use it, they’re going to lose it. That’s what I’m trying to convince seniors, to use everything we have.”
Asked how seniors survive “these mean streets,” she responded, “I guess the seniors use what was instilled in them to survive. Pretty much if you’re looking for what has been dangerous out here, between the shootings, if that’s what you’re speaking about, which I would say at one point were randomly every night. They (police) now set up police vans in the neighborhoods, which makes it calm for whatever periodic time that they’re in that area or that street or that block.”
“When I worked with the teens, I did lose a couple through shootings, robberies, drugs,” she said but none of her seniors have been harmed at the time of her interview. Seniors share information about when it’s safe and unsafe to be on the streets. It use to be like this, she said, as an example, seniors understood, Brownsville Houses, you don’t want to be there after sundown.
“They’re at the point where they’re not comfortable but they’re not afraid. They can finger-point and go, ‘That’s probably the Brown family, girl. You heard they got into something.’ They may know who (is involved in a shooting or ruckus) but then they’re not going to speak outside of the seniors’ circle on what’s going on, but they do inform each other about things that are happening. I hear them talk about it,” Adams said. “They’re going to be up early in the morning to accomplish things, and then by 2 or 3, they’re ready to return home, no later than 4. They want to be back indoors.”
“The city rescheduled certain buses to stop at the senior centers (to make it easier for seniors to use public transportation),” she said.
“Just the other day,” she said, she saw NYPD Emergency Service Unit Officers, whom she referred to as a SWAT, “running in and out of these buildings.” But no civilians other than her seemed particularly concerned. “Everybody’s walking the street like nothing was happening. I was like, this is not normal but it is normal” for these South Brooklyn communities. “To them (seniors), it’s like breathing air. They’ve learned to adjust.”
She recalled one time when, “We’re sitting in this big room, and the officers come in just to relax for lunch or whatever, for some cool down time, and all of a sudden, pop, pop, pop, pop. It shouldn’t be an every day thing when you hear gun shots” but when it happens the seniors take it in stride.
The City tries to address the poverty seniors experience regarding food, Adams said. Seniors who have registered for FAN (Food and Nutrition for Seniors) can get additional food and nutritional meals once a month. Those not registered for FAN but who visit the center where she works come in and take extras for family members who may be living with them or for families who need food, she said.
Asked if there were many people who need that kind of extra help, Adams replied, “Just off the top of my head, yes. If they are getting income, it’s not going to meet much of their needs. Here’s an example: One of the seniors food stamps were cut, and they’re only getting 15 dollars. What are you going to buy with $15? That’s only milk and eggs, because eggs are $4 and milk is $4. You do the math, and bread. Fifteen dollars is all she gets.”
How can someone survive like that? “I don’t know. That’s pretty scary. They have their budgets. If they don’t have children living with them, then it’s less. If they write their children down, now housing wants to know how many people are in that apartment. That’s the biggest thing now. They city wants them all to downsize, where some had a 4-bedroom apartment, the city wants them downsized to one.”
“You ask me how are they getting by? I’m wondering, how do they get by? There are meals provided by the Department of the Aging through Wayside (Wayside Out-Reach Development, Inc.),” Adams said. For that service a $2r donation is asked , “but if they don’t have the 42, I’m still going to feed them. Wayside still feeds them.”
Trying to help seniors can be challenging. “I had the bar association come out one time to do proxies for health, or wills, things like that. One lawyer said at the meeting, ‘You don’t have to have your children live with you instead of them doing what they need to do to take care of themselves.’ If you buy a box of cereal that’s on your budget, and they’re not on your budget, you don’t have to feed your grandkids and your children.’” But many try, Adams said.
Seniors are told that there are “city organizations or city agencies that can assist them with squatting kids, have them removed or placed somewhere where they can get help,” Adams said. “Many seniors, will say, ‘I need this for my kids, my grandkids.’ They’re saving everything for them,” even though lawyers and others tell the seniors, “You don’t owe them nothing. You don’t have to give them your savings, your money.”
“A lot of seniors, their money has been taken from them by their children, or they give it up if their children are ill,” she said. “We thought it would be elders needing disability support, which they do, but it’s more of that younger age group that is in more need of disability. Who would have thought alcohol would become such a problem, a crutch for people of needs? Now we see more disability among the younger people and it’s because of the crime in the area that many are shot or wounded, or whatever the case might be. Now they’re living with their grandparents and their children. You’ve got two or three generations being raised by 60, 70, 80-year-old grandparents. There are seniors who don’t want to do it anymore, but they do because they don’t want the babies to suffer.”