INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: No Safe Haven for the Old, Black and Poor

INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: No Safe Haven for the Old, Black and Poor

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Part 4. Read the “Invisible in New York Series” here.

EAST NEW YORK--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 (NYCHA). "I started out with taking care of children, ages six 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, who has worked at NYCHA for more than 20 years, grew up in the Brownsville and nearby East New York neighborhoods.

Housing Improvements in Last Decade

The housing authority, Adams continued, has been making improvements in seniors' lives in the area. "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."

Adams recalled a senior, age 80, who had procrastinated for over nine months before reporting flooding in her apartment, which threatened to become a serious health issue. "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."

Once reported, the repairs were done in two months, which was fast, she said.

Adams is concerned about a lack of public understanding of some of the authority’s the long-term goals. For instance, in its effort to reduce the size of apartments, NYCHA is adamant that one resident cannot live in a two-bedroom apartment. Residents, though, are concerned about having adequate room for visitors or even temporary long stays by adult children and grandkids. Some consider their apartments legacies that they want to pass on to their family members.

Among other sources of conflict, she said, is the housing agency’s aim of ridding itself of programs and services it deems unnecessary. For example, 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 then before. "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."

She added, though, "You come here this time next year, this might be a daycare or some kind of store." Why? Because fewer 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.

Federal Housing Cuts

A key factor in reductions, Adams emphasized, is that "NYCHA used to get a federal budget. We haven't had a federal budget over 10 more years or so, given a few numbers." Federal support for affordable senior housing has eroded nationwide in recent years.

Adams lamented that many seniors don't take advantage of senior centers and available services and support.

She noted there is a center at every development, whether it's for children, or seniors or both. She lamented, “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. "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, Adams responded, "I guess the seniors use what was instilled in them to survive. Although the areas saw random nightly shootings at one point, she said, officers “now set up police vans in the neighborhoods, which makes it calm for whatever period of time that they're in that area or that street or that block."

Living with Crime

"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. Seniors share information about when it's safe and unsafe to be on the streets, such as when to stay away from the Brownsville Houses development 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.

She went on, "They're going to be up early in the morning to accomplish things, and then by two or three, they're ready to return home, no later than four. They want to be back indoors" well before evening.

"The city rescheduled certain buses to stop at the senior centers,” she said, to make it easier for seniors to use public transportation. "

"Just the other day” Adams observed NYPD Emergency Service Unit Officers 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 the seniors, she asserted, “it's like breathing air. They've learned to adjust."

Adams 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, she said.

Food and Nutrition

New York City tries to address seniors’ poverty regarding food, Adams said. Elders who have registered for the FAN (Food and Nutrition for Seniors) program 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 other families needing food, she said.

Adams has observed many people who need that kind of extra help, "If they are getting income, it's not going to meet much of their needs. Here's an example: One of the senior’s food stamps were cut, and they were only getting $15. 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--$15 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 four-bedroom apartment, the city wants them downsized to one."

Adams asked, "I'm wondering, how do they get by? There are meals provided by the Department of the Aging through Wayside,” or the service nonprofit, Wayside Out-Reach Development, Inc. The fee for that service is a $2 donation, she said, "but if they don't have the $2, I'm still going to feed them. Wayside still feeds them."

Helping Their Children, Grandkids

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.”

What’s more, she said, “Who would have thought alcohol would become such a problem, a crutch for people? 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."

Gregg Morris wrote this series for the Amsterdam News supported by a journalism fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America with sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation.