The Over-the-Rhine Senior Services Center will get a much-needed injection of city funds so it can continue its more than three decades in the neighborhood.
Cincinnati City Council today approved a one-time $50,000 funding source to help the center stay open. Sittenfeld also promised to pursue legislation that would allow the center to keep revenue from leasing out the upper floor of the center, which is owned by the city.
Earlier this month, center operators Cincinnati Area Senior Services indicated it would shutter the building because the program it runs at the center providing breakfast, lunch and programing for senior citizens faced a $100,000 budget deficit. Instead, CASS said it would bus seniors who come to the center to Mount Auburn.
CASS CEO Tracey Collins says that the center lost city funding in 2015 and has since suffered cuts to funding it gets via United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which has been experiencing its own fundraising difficulties recently.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld introduced the ordinance council passed today.
“It feels fitting in this holiday season to take action that allows our seniors to stay put in a neighborhood where they’ve received care for over 30 years — getting a warm meal in the warm company of friends," Sittenfeld said in a statement after the vote. "I will also be advocating that City Council adjust the parameters for the City’s Human Services funding so that senior citizens can once again get the support and funding they deserve.”
Attendees who come for the roughly 70 meals the center provides each day told CityBeat earlier this month that it is a way to find companionship, safety and comfort.
“It feels safe,” Wendell Russell, who attends the center regularly, said recently. “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.”
“This is a home away from home," another longtime center visitor named Clifford Beasley said today. "If we had had to give this up, we'd be lost. It means a lot that someone cares about the elderly. I've been coming here it seems like forever."
An earlier ordinance would have given ownership of the building over to CASS, which the nonprofit said would provide peace of mind for potential donors.
"One of our challenges is that, for the past two years, we've been operating without a lease," she says. "Getting rid of the unknown will help us move forward with donors."
The nonprofit already covers maintenance and operations costs for the building, which run about $84,000 a year.
News of the closure angered social service advocates, who mounted a campaign to save the senior center by rallying, starting a petition and lobbying council. The neighborhood is predominantly black with a median household income less than half the overall city's median income and has lost a number of social service providers over the past decade, even as high-dollar developments have ramped up there.
Funding from the city for the center dropped from a high of more than $130,000 in 2007 to zero just eight years later as the city shifted funding priorities toward workforce development, help for people experiencing homelessness and violence prevention.
"Seniors have to be on the agenda for the city of Cincinnati," Collins says. "That's the big win here... this is like their second home."
Collins says CASS will need to raise $50,000-$75,000 each year to keep the center running. But the attention around its potential closure may have spurred more donors — in the days after it was revealed the center could close, a private family foundation pitched in $5,000.
"If we could have just a few more donations like that for the specific cause of keeping our doors open here in Over-the-Rhine, that would be fantastic," CASS Board Chair Dan Driehaus said.
Fighting back tears, Senior Center director Cheryl Ware said the center is pivotal for those who go there — and for her.
"We are family here," Ware says. "And that's it. To move us — we were prepared to go as a family, but we are so pleased to stay here in our home."