It’s not often an opening attended by hundreds of people for a senior center that elected officials have poured tens of thousands of dollars into is marked with both elation and despair.
But an event Friday at the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Senior Center was just that — a time to celebrate the launch of a place that many seniors credit with giving them a reason to go on living, as well as to publicly denounce the city’s plans to shutter the site due to state budget cuts.
“This place is everything to me,” said Ronald Price, 63, of Woodhaven. “I have no family. I lost my only sister a year and a half ago to cancer. Here, I have friends. I get a good meal here. I’m on food stamps, so without this place, I don’t eat.”
City officials recently released a list of approximately 105 centers — out of a total of 256 in the city — they may have to close if the state does not restore about $25 million in federal Title XX funds typically given to the city for senior services. The city has used the Title XX money for senior centers for years, but Gov. Cuomo said it needs to spent elsewhere to deal with a projected $10 billion budget deficit.
“We are facing very dire times,” said Robert Siebel, the CEO of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, which runs the center at 78-15 Jamaica Ave. in Woodhaven. “We have to make sure a place like this does not close.”
Catholic Charities is in charge of two other centers in Queens that could be targeted for closure —the Steinway Senior Center in Astoria and the Seaside Senior Center in Rockaway Beach.
A total of 22 centers in Queens could be shuttered, including the Howard Beach Senior Center.
Catholic Charities had run senior centers in Woodhaven and Richmond Hill but had to move out of its site at St. Thomas the Apostle about a year and a half ago because a program that shared the space with the center left and rent became too expensive. The program paid to transport seniors in Woodhaven to the Richmond Hill site, which has subsequently closed because of budget cuts.
Community advocates, including Woodhaven Business Improvement District Executive Director Maria Thomson, worked to find the center’s new home at the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
“It’s a win-win situation for us and the seniors, one of whom is my mother,” said Pat Sexton, a volunteer at the ambulance corps that has been in the neighborhood since 1965. “We get a tenant and the volunteers can provide information about first aid, blood pressure, warning signs for heart attacks for the seniors.”
Borough President Helen Marshall provided $25,000 in public funds for renovations to the ambulance corps building to make it handicapped accessible, and state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) contributed $7,500, Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) gave $5,000, and Councilwoman Liz Crowley (D-Middle Village) provided $4,000 to the center and another $4,000 to the ambulance corps.
After Marshall presented a karaoke machine to the Woodhaven center, a move that received a standing ovation from many a person in the audience, Addabbo criticized Mayor Bloomberg for releasing the list of possible closures and said he was using the seniors as “tools of budget negotations.”
Addabbo said legislators need to convince Cuomo to restore the Title XX funds to the city but also said the city could come up with money for the centers if it, for example, spent less money using outside consultants.
“This center can and will remain open,” Addabbo said.
Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) began collecting signatures at the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill center Friday for a petition against closing it, as well as the centers throughout the city. He plans to present the petition to Bloomberg and Cuomo.
“Every year it’s the same story,” Miller said. “We have to cut our budgets and the senior centers are the first to go. This is unacceptable. The money exists to keep these centers open. We are allowing millionaires and billionaires to avoid taxes, while the over-burdened, defenseless middle and working classes suffer.”
Ulrich stressed that seniors’ quality of life would rapidly deteriorate without the center.
“You don’t need this just for a hot meal,” Ulrich said. “You need it to interact, for education.”
The center will close over his “dead body,” Ulrich added.
Eleanor Errante, who has lived in Woodhaven since 1933, praised the center she said plays a crucial role in seniors’ lives.
“It gives them a longer life when they have something to look forward to,” she said. “Otherwise they’d just be lying in bed all day.”