Noe Valley Voice April 2003

Senior Center Fights to Save Meal Program

By Laura McHale Holland

The sharp blade of the budget ax may soon fall on a program that has served low-cost midday meals to Noe Valley seniors for more than two decades.

But the men and women who attend the Noe Valley Senior Center, located within the Noe Valley Ministry at Sanchez and 23rd streets, are lobbying hard to keep what they see as their only opportunity for a daily hot lunch and social camaraderie.

"I come here because it's close to my house," says 22nd Street resident Ann Trutt, who suffers from macular degeneration in her left eye. "If they take this place away from me, I don't know what I'm going to do."

The bad news came last month from the city's Office on the Aging, which oversees funding for 19 sites serving the elderly in San Francisco. Due to looming budget cuts, the Office has recommended to Project Open Hand, the organization that supplies weekday meals to the Noe Valley Senior Center, that it cease deliveries to all sites serving fewer than 30 members. Since the Noe Valley center feeds only about 20 seniors a day, it may be on the chopping block at the start of the next fiscal year in July.

Julie Wasem, director of Senior Services at Project Open Hand, confirmed that she was under pressure to drop the smaller meal sites. However, she said, "We still included Noe Valley in our proposal to the Office on the Aging this year. And we stated why we think the site should remain open, even though it serves fewer than 30 people." She added that Open Hand probably would not know the outcome of the budget battle "until late May or June."

Meanwhile, the staff and members of the Noe Valley Senior Center are wringing their hands. "The seniors are very anxious," says site coordinator Wendy Cohen. "Without the meals, the center would have to close."

Cohen says many of those who attend the noon program live within a few blocks of the church. Some are frail or disabled, she says, and would have a hard time walking or taking the bus to another site.

Senior Helen Yturriaga, who has been walking to the center for lunch from her Chattanooga Street home for 15 years, agrees, noting that the two closest sites are the Diamond Senior Center in the Castro and On Lok Senior Services on 30th Street. "One is up a big hill, and the other is eight to 10 blocks away," she says.

For Sanchez Street resident Joel Abramson, whose mobility has been impaired by a stroke, traveling to another senior center is not practical.

"I'm too unsteady getting on buses," Abramson says. "I can't cook because my hand is not steady, so I wouldn't go anyplace if the center closes. I might make myself a sandwich, but I don't like losing the companionship of the people at the center."

Even those who can easily get to another center say they would miss the fellowship of their small group.

"I've made so many friends here. It's very congenial," says Edith Hartnett, a 25th Street resident who has been coming to the center for 15 years. "Then there's the shopping nearby--the bank, post office, the grocery store. I can do all sorts of little errands when I do lunch."

The program, which was started in the early '80s, has been threatened twice before. Originally a satellite of the 30th Street Senior Center, it was slated to close in 1992 as a result of budget cuts. Members approached the Salvation Army, which took over until it lost its contract in 1998 after refusing to provide benefits for domestic partners. The center then approached Project Open Hand, which has run the program ever since. The seniors pay a $1.50 donation to receive a hot lunch.

Cohen, who's been coordinating the program for 41/2 years, also arranges exercise and nutrition classes for the participants. She offers free haircuts as well. "I've seen many seniors come through our doors. I've seen them until the end, until they die," she says, adding, "The people here are really close. It's important that they continue to have a place to go."

In late March, the seniors were busy writing letters to Mayor Willie Brown, and seeking help from Supervisor Bevan Dufty, Ministry Pastor Keenan Kelsey, and other friends and neighbors in Noe Valley. They also were inviting local residents to join their ranks, so they could reach the magic number of 30.

"We waged a campaign before to keep it open and managed to do so," says Lois Hoskins, who has attended the center with her husband Bill for a dozen years. "We're going to see if we can do it again."

If you would like to join or otherwise help out the Noe Valley Senior Center, stop by the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street, any weekday between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You must be 60 years old to be eligible for a $1.50 meal, but younger people can also buy lunch for full price ($3.75). To make a meal reservation, call Wendy Cohen at 648-1030.