Senior centers consolidate with new budget

Seniors take a class at the South Berkeley Senior Center, which consolidated its programs to offset cuts to the Housing and Community Services Department.
Derek Remsburg/Staff
Seniors take a class at the South Berkeley Senior Center, which consolidated its programs to offset cuts to the Housing and Community Services Department.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series on the city budget.

Theresa Holman would probably be spending her afternoons at home watching reruns of the Oprah Winfrey Show on television were she not at the South Berkeley Senior Center.

Holman, 76, started coming to the center a little over a year ago, after she suffered a stroke that left the right side of her body numb and made her unable to walk properly. Though she lived with her son for a short time afterward, Holman now lives in a subsidized rental apartment in South Berkeley provided by federal grants given to the city for senior citizens to reside alone with the choice of assisted living.

“At the center, I can play bingo, exercise — and I’m on the trip committee,” Holman said. “So far we have gone to ball parks and lots of health fairs, but next week we are going to the Gilroy Garlic Festival.”

About 380 seniors like Holman who attend programs put on by the South, North and West Berkeley Senior Centers are facing structural changes and consolidation of services that provide meals, recreational classes and shelter for seniors — especially those who are homeless or disabled.

Such cost-saving measures to the city’s senior centers were necessitated by city budget cuts to the Housing and Community Services Department, which led to the closure of the West Berkeley center to the public on July 5.

In order to overcome the city’s projected $12.2 million deficit in fiscal year 2012 and $13.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2013, the Berkeley City Council adopted a biennial budget, which included the elimination of 79 full-time positions and other service cuts, at its June 28 meeting. According to Jane Micallef, the city’s housing and community services director, the budget cuts offset approximately $1 million in federal and state cuts to the housing department.

Under the new budget, the West Berkeley center has been turned into a social services office, meaning it no longer provides recreational or social programs to seniors.

However, the cuts have led to some positive changes for seniors who attend center activities, as there are now clear staff responsibilities and a distinction of services offered.

“Folks (at West Berkeley) can really focus on social services, which increased the capacity to address the issue of case management,” said Aging Services Manager Kelly Wallace. “Then, staff left at centers could focus on senior centers and activities — the staff is clearly defined. We don’t grab them to do other things, and case management staff are still stationed at North and South every day.”

According to Wallace, the consolidation improves the structure of the senior centers because at one time, all three centers were a one-stop shop with the same activities like ceramics, African jewelry making and dance classes. Now, he said, these services are no longer redundant, as the West Berkeley center is solely used by city staff and caseworkers to supervise programs such as Meals on Wheels, while the North and South Berkeley centers will be used to provide hot meals and recreational programs for seniors.

“These are more than just classes,” said Ed Gold, chair of the city’s Commission on Aging. “For some of these people, these are like an anchor in their day — their life revolves around this help provided in the senior centers.”

Community members view the reorganization of the centers as a step forward in easier access to senior programs, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who said the council received a letter from the commission in support of the reorganization and that there has only been one complaint about the new structure.

In addition to providing four case managers to handle social services at the centers, transportation is now also provided from homes to centers, along with a bus system being used to help smooth the transition for seniors, Wallace said.

“The recent cost-saving measures provide services for seniors for higher level care — even letting us send workers to the homes of seniors with mobility issues,” Micallef said.

Though consolidation of Berkeley’s senior services has been met with positive reception, budget cuts to the housing department have resulted in the elimination of the city’s weatherization program, which has been around for about 30 years and has enabled low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy-efficient.

But Micallef said the city will be providing funding for the program until December and that residents will be able to receive similar services from a provider chosen by the state.

Still, in Holman’s case, change in the centers’ structure has allowed her to benefit from new services offered as a result of the cuts.

“A bus picks me up at home to go to the center every morning and then takes me home every evening. The center truly saved my life,” Holman said.

Anjuli Sastry covers housing.

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