Editor's note: this article was published in the latest edition of the Norwood News, out on streets now.
By Rachel Sander
Proposed budget cuts could shut down 105 senior centers citywide this year, 22 of which are in the Bronx, including the Sister Annunciata Bethel Senior Center, also known as the Bedford Park Senior Center, and the Van Cortlandt Senior Center.
Local politicians are gearing up for a fight, while regulars at the Bedford Park center, on East 204th Street near Mosholu Parkway, emphasized how devastating the loss would be.
Erneszstin Bakos, an 89-year-old member and volunteer for the center, works at the front door, greeting the 60 to 70 seniors that attend the center daily. “I love this place,” she said. “It’s my second home.”
“I’m so happy here! You get to meet people and make friends. It gets you out of the house and keeps you connected,” Isabel Cales said, adding that she has learned how to use the computer at the center. “Where else would I get the chance to do that?”
In addition to computer classes, the center offers a variety of activities and programs for seniors, such as bingo, movies, crochet, knitting, painting, and exercise classes.
“This is the only place where I’m not depressed,” Ramonita Marrero said. “Here you get to enjoy company, express yourself, play games, and ease your mind.”
Like others, Marrero questions where she would go if the center closes. “I feel desperate, I have no place to go,” she said. “We need help.”
Staff at the center also face an uncertain future. “How do you fix the economy putting people out of jobs?” asked Ann Marie Moriarty, the assistant cook for the center and a single mother of three.
But Addys Medina, head cook for the center, said that while the closure would be hard on the workers, “it’s harder on the seniors.” “It’s a real shame,” she added. “The seniors here did a lot for the city and for the United States. We have veterans and teachers here who made New York what it is today.”
Medina adds that “for a lot of seniors, this is their only meal.”
“I’d be lost without this center,” said Marge Cutaia. “I think they don’t think we have the gumption to fight, but we’re gonna fool them, we’re gonna show them we can fight back!”
Last Friday, Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. held a rally on the steps of Bronx Borough Hall to signal that this decision would not be accepted quietly.
“The loss of the senior centers in my district and throughout the city will have a devastating effect,” said Local Council Member Oliver Koppell in a statement.
Changes to the state’s budget have cut $25 million usually reserved for the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA), a third of the agency’s funding for senior centers, said spokesman Christopher Miller.
In a statement, the DFTA said it is working to reverse the cuts, but that closures are certain unless the state money is somehow restored. Centers would close at the end of June if the budget gets passed as proposed, Miller said.
Last year, the city threatened to close 50 senior centers across the five boroughs, but many were saved after funding was restored at the last minute. Every year, there are budget cuts and closure threats.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said, “The threat this year is more serious than previous years because the budget deficit is much larger.” But, he added, “I am very hopeful and I will not rest until all the money is restored.”
Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City explained that even with restoration funding from the state, “we don’t get all the money back.” She said that the Council of Senior Centers and Services has lost $50 million in city funding since 2008.
“Seniors are dancing in quicksand,” she said, “and we are losing. This is the second year in a row they have threatened to close senior centers.” Still, she said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
At the Bedford Park Senior Center, many are hoping for a miracle, including Bernard Sullivan, who said, “I pray a little more now.”