Testimony of Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center – Committee on Aging Hearing, September 21, 2020

I would like to thank Chair Margaret Chin for her support of the Aging Services sector and for bringing us together today on the future of Senior Centers in New York City after COVID-19-19. Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony. I will focus my remarks on the experiences of our senior center this year, our concerns and thoughts about re-opening, and on the recently released concept paper ahead of the Request for Proposals (RFP).

The Isaacs Center is a multi-service organization providing services to all ages for nearly 60 years. We are a “hybrid model” Senior Center and NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) program located at the Isaacs Houses and Holmes Towers public housing developments on the Upper East Side, and the Taft Houses Senior Center in East Harlem. Our Senior Center/NORC program serves over 1,300 seniors per year with a focus on food and nutrition, financial security, housing stability, and health & wellness, in addition to 1,292 Meals on Wheels program participants.

Since the pandemic began and shut our doors to on-site programming and meals service in March, our program has had to shift focus in real time to intensive remote case management, online programming, and addressing an unprecedented food security crisis in our community. Case management continued without pause, and between staff and volunteers, we have made over 8,000 calls to newly homebound older adults. We identified over 600 older adults experiencing food insecurity and had to fight to get many included in what became GetFood, for weeks. To fill the gaps, we established our Community Kitchen, with which we have prepared and delivered more than 18,000 meals to supplement our daily Home Delivered Meals. Meals from the Community Kitchen were either provided as a grab-and-go option to residents of the public housing development where we are located or were delivered directly to older adults who were not receiving meals from the GetFood program due to its delays or thought our meals better suited their dietary needs.

We also identified 251 older adults without air conditioning. Many of these seniors were left out of the GetCool program, and it was not until July and August, that those left behind could be referred through the Department of Health, the Isaacs Center used its private funding to purchase 70 units.

Much of the aforementioned was done with very little guidance and collaboration from the City. For example, Senior Centers were not asked early on for input in identifying older adults who were in need of meals and air conditioning, and were never given the process by which the selected names were obtained. In the absence of coordinated and consistent city government assistance or a targeted effort from city government to provide community-based organizations like ours with the resources or flexibility that we needed to assist older adults that we serve year-round, we utilized whatever funding we could find to assist seniors whose cupboards and refrigerators had emptied, who were sick, shut-in, and panicked and whose chronic health conditions required immediate and on-going infusions of attention and assistance.

City directives to re-open prematurely or drastically change aging services policies without input from the human services sector, as well as robust support, funding, and planning, will have devastating consequences for an already vulnerable population. The public health crisis is not over, and we do not believe it is safe at this time to re-open our doors for in person programming. It is well known that older adults are particularly vulnerable to serious illness and death from this virus, and as we have seen with schools starting to open, the risks remain very real. Closing our doors in March was the most difficult thing we have ever had to do as an organization and keeping them closed for in-person services has only gotten harder. We are keenly aware of the consequences of isolation, and of not having a congregate meals service. But it is simply unsafe, and potentially deadly, to gather older adults in a crowd. We can and have begun to allow members to individually drop off documentation (contact free) and we will arrange individual appointments as needed to assist with benefit renewals, public housing re-certifications and other immediate tasks. We have facilitated appropriately distanced outdoor events for COVID-19 testing and flu shots. As noted, we have proven our ability to support older adults and other community members through our Community Kitchen. With City funding, or the ability to amend our contracts and redirect our current funding to meet the most significant needs of the older adults right now, we can prevent hunger and food insecurity now by expanding our Community Kitchen operation. Opening the Community Kitchen has the dual benefit of feeding our neighbors and increasing employment opportunities for food services professionals who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

We appreciate recent opportunities to discuss and share feedback on the concept paper recently released ahead of the RFP. However, given that we remain in an unprecedented health crisis with no end date in sight, it is an inappropriate time to be moving forward with this RFP. We ask for the Council’s help and advocacy in delaying the RFP until the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. Senior Center programs remain is crisis mode, trying to address hunger, and keeping older adults safe in their homes and as active and engaged as possible without a physical gathering space. We are doing this at time of budget cuts and an uncertain future. The concept paper demonstrates a disconnect between the realities of meeting the moment for the older adults we serve and attempting to outline new service models for an uncertain future.

We could point out a number of concerns about the concept paper including but not limited to the eight models outlined that do not accurately represent any one senior center, and do not account for the new ways in which we need to conduct our work. Additionally, there is an absence of useful content specific to how the City sees Senior Center programs as being essential to reducing the food insecurity experienced by older adults, particularly considering that the vast majority of lives lost during this public health crisis were age 75 or older. Most notable, however, is the consistent underfunding of services for older adults. Neither DFTA’s current budget – less than ½ of one percent of the city’s overall budget – nor the content of this concept paper – reflects a commitment to an older adult population that was growing and fragile before the pandemic. Further, funding for this RFP outlined in the paper does not include millions of dollars in one-time funding from both the Administration and the City Council, which has supported the sector for nearly a decade. We ask for the inclusion and baselining of this one-time funding and encourage the convening of public and private partners including city government, foundations, and non-profit sector to focus on the strategies and approaches this City should be taking to address the health and housing needs of its older adults. By taking comprehensive, effective, and sustainable actions, those who survived the pandemic will repay the debt that we owe to those seniors whose lives were lost.

This has been a year of unbelievable challenges, and it is not over. But it has never been clearer the essential role Senior Centers play in our communities. We ask for your support and advocacy as we continue on the path to recovery and use the lessons of the year to build a stronger and more resilient City for aging New Yorkers.