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Elderly Plead with Lawmakers to Save Senior Centers

By DNAinfo Staff on February 20, 2011 9:33am  | Updated on February 20, 2011 9:39am

By Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MIDTOWN — Almost every weekday for the past four years, 68-year-old widow Alfreda Vanoers has turned to the Encore Senior Center in Midtown for her only meal of the day.

She fills her tray with the center's legendary food — fresh fish slathered with lemon-garlic sauce, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, fresh grapefruit and tiny cups of vanilla ice cream, on Friday — and takes a seat next to a friend who traveled to the center all the way from Queens.

"It’s a reason to get dressed, to put makeup on and get out of the house," said Vanoers, who was born in Cuba and lives nearby in Midtown. "It's wonderful," she said.

But in a decision that has seniors reeling, Vanoers and thousands of other seniors could be losing their meals and social hub. The state is expected to slash its Title XX senior center funding by nearly 30 percent, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed Thursday that the city will not intervene to make up the slack.

That means that between 100 and 110 of the city's 256 senior centers will be forced to shut their doors, said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging.

Barrios-Paoli said the impact of the cuts would be "traumatizing" for the estimated 28,000 seniors who visit the centers every day. 30 percent of city seniors live in poverty, she said, meaning that for many, like Vanoers, the meal will be the only food they’ll eat.

"It's very, very important," said Vanoers of the club, adding that she struggles to make ends meet alone. "I'm really all by myself," she said.

"The social isolation, the loneliness, coupled with poverty is very difficult,"Barrios-Paoli said.

Encore on West 49th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway, for instance, serves 350 meals every day, said food service manager Juan Cruz, 58. Seniors pay just $1.50 for the highly-touted meals, which Cruz said he makes sure are large enough so diners who can't afford groceries won't be hungry for several hours.

The center also offers services like workshops, counseling, exercise classes, bingo nights and dances to keep seniors engaged.

Staff at the center have begun a campaign to save the centers, collecting hundreds of signatures to send to state officials in opposition to the cuts.

But they're scared.

"I’m freaking out," said assistant director Nieves Tavares, who has been working at Encore for the past 15 years and said the job is the only one she knows.

But even if Encore stays open, staff fear they will be overwhelmed by demand from centers that must close. Already, lines at lunch snake through the door.

"We hardly have enough as it is," Cruz said.

But Herminia Toledo, 74, another Encore regular who lives in Midtown, said that without the support of the center, many seniors would never leave their homes or be forced onto the street.

"To me, it’s devastating, not only for myself but for anybody else," she said of the cuts.

Eduardo Maldanaro, 65, who is homeless, said the center is a lifeline he depends on for survival. Staff said he arrives every day early in the morning and helps as a volunteer. When the center closes, he heads underground into the subways to sleep.

He said he was in shock when he heard the centers were at risk.

"I depend on this place for my life," he said.

Food services manager Juan Cruz, 58, said he serves about 350 meals a day.
Food services manager Juan Cruz, 58, said he serves about 350 meals a day.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin