Cuts would ‘devastate’ a service for 1,000 seniors


By Albert Amateau

Pauline Skoblow is living on her own in Penn South and doing nicely, thank you, at the age of 96.

She gets around with a walker and with the help of volunteers from Visiting Neighbors, goes out for walks, makes doctors appointments and takes care of the daily tasks that allow her to live independently.

Just as important, Skoblow developed close bonds with volunteers, like the New York University student from Tennessee who signed onto Visiting Neighbors for a year and continued to visit weekly until she graduated four years later.

But Visiting Neighbors is facing the imminent loss of city funding at the end of this year, threatening the safety and confidence of more than 960 seniors, like Skoblow, in Chelsea, the West Village, the East Village and Soho, who depend on Visiting Neighbors’ two programs — Friendly Visits and Intergenerational Services.

The bad news came in two separate letters on Dec. 2 from the Department for the Aging, saying that Visiting Neighbors would loss all its city funds — $81,801 for the 2009 fiscal year and $163,602 for the 2010 fiscal year.

“The same day we started our ‘elfing’ activities — wrapping little holiday gifts for our seniors — we got these two letters both dated Dec. 1, one saying DFTA will stop funding the Intergenerational Program by Dec. 31, and the other saying DFTA will stop funding Visiting Neighbors — everything — by Dec. 31,” said Cynthia Maurer, Visiting Neighbors executive director.

City funding amounts to one-third of the group’s roughly $500,000 annual budget, and the Dec. 31 deadline means Visiting Neighbors doesn’t have the time to try to make up the loss from foundations and corporate and individual donors, Maurer explained.

“On the same day, we got a phone call from DFTA saying they needed the notarized documents confirming the 3 percent reduction in funds that we had agreed to earlier this year and that we were expecting,” said Maurer. “They said they needed it right away, and I said, ‘Isn’t it silly to ask for that the same day you told us there won’t be any funding at all? — 3 percent of nothing is nothing.’ They said, ‘We don’t know anything about that; we’re in the fiscal office.’ The whole thing is macabre. Complete defunding will devastate our agency,” Maurer said.

The letters from DFTA Commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago made it clear that the city did not fault the work of Visiting Neighbors.

“The decision to eliminate funding is neither a reflection upon the quality of service that your agency has been providing all these years, nor DFTA’s appreciation of those services,” the letters said.

Maurer noted that 15 years ago the average age of Visiting Neighbors’ clients was about 70. Today it is 91, with 20 individuals over age 100. Moreover, 70 percent of the clients are older than 85.

Visiting Neighbors has a staff of 12, six full time and six part time, who advise and oversee a corps of 700 volunteers who make visits and focus on the condition and needs of the seniors.

“This agency provides the biggest bang for the buck of any under contract to the city,” Maurer said. “Many of our seniors have no families or no one living near enough for regular visits. Our volunteers see them often and can tell when a senior doesn’t appear to be eating properly or when they aren’t as tidy as they usually are.”

In letters sent on Dec. 3 to the DFTA commissioner, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, as well as Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson, Maurer outlined the 36-year-old agency’s desperate plight.

Visiting Neighbors serves 388 seniors in Quinn’s Village and Chelsea district, 226 seniors in Gerson’s council district and 192 seniors in Mendez’s district. Last year, volunteers made 5,750 escorted visits to doctors and 5,820 assists with shopping, responded to 775 emergencies and fielded 5,210 calls from caregivers and seniors seeking information and referrals to other agencies. Seniors get holiday gifts from Visiting Neighbors “elves” and birthday cards made by local schoolchildren.

The first City Council response came from Mendez, who sent a letter to the DFTA commissioner on Dec. 3, saying she understood the severity of the budget crisis but that the impact of eliminating Visiting Neighbors’ funding would be “devastating to thousands of seniors both physically and emotionally.” Mendez urged the department to make cuts to the program rather than eliminate funding. She also suggested waiting six months on any cuts to allow Visiting Neighbors and similar organizations to develop alternative funding sources.

Quinn and Gerson did not respond to inquiries for this article by press time.