In the wake of the near-closing of a senior center in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld is calling for a change to the way the city funds human services organizations to make room for those who provide care to senior citizens.
Cincinnati Area Senior Services runs the Over-the-Rhine Senior Service Center, which has been at its location on Race Street near Findlay Market for more than 30 years. Late last year, CASS announced it would need to shutter the center due to a $100,000 budget shortfall.
The city eventually stepped in and provided $50,000 in emergency funding to keep the center open, and is in the process of approving a new, no-cost lease with CASS for the city-owned facility that will let the nonprofit rent out the building's second floor as a revenue source. Sittenfeld, however, says there need to be more structural changes to the way the city funds organizations like CASS so the senior center doesn't find itself in the same position again.
"What we do not want is to be back in the same situation year after year," Sittenfeld said at a news conference today at the senior center.
The OTR Senior Center once got as much as $116,000 in city funding, but that ended in 2015 after dwindling for years. That, combined with cuts to the funding that the center received from United Way, put the center on shaky financial ground. CASS covers all operating and maintenance costs on the building even though it is city-owned.
In the last three years, it has received no money from the city as focus for human services funding has shifted to other areas, including workforce development. That funding, which is allocated to service organizations with advice from the United Way, has in the past few years been set aside for violence prevention, addressing homelessness and workforce development. Sittenfeld's legislation would add senior services as another priority for funding dollars. Sittenfeld also says that recent legislation should make the pot of money spent on human services bigger, meaning more to go around for organizations working on a number of issues.
CASS CEO Tracey Collins says the city funding was important because it provided a match to federal dollars. She applauded the effort to try and restore that funding.
"We're not asking for millions of dollars," she said. "We used to get $116,000 a year."
The center is vital to a number of older residents of the quickly-changing neighborhood around Findlay Market in northern OTR. CASS had a plan in place to bus seniors to a new location in Mount Auburn, but many say they like the convenience, warmth and community found at the current location.
On most days, Wendell Russell makes the short walk from his home to the center in the morning so he can eat breakfast and sit and talk with other seniors who live in the area. He then stops back by his house to rest a little before coming back over for lunch and activities.
“It’s convenient,” Russell told CityBeat late last year. “I stay right over on Elm Street. When they said they were moving, I was disappointed by that. They don’t have other facilities for seniors down here."
“It feels safe,” Russell says. “You know how us seniors are — sometimes we start tripping about safety. And, you know, being up in age like this — seniors move on, they leave this life. Cheryl is willing to sit down and talk about it. And if we don’t show up for a few days, she’ll call. I stay alone and I appreciate her checking up on me when I don’t show up.”
Council member Wendell Young, who supports Sittenfeld's motion, stressed the role the center plays in the community.
""I know a little bit about aging," he said at today's news conference. "In many cases when you age you outlive the people you care about. It's great to have another family like this."