Retirement is supposed to be easy, but it will soon be more difficult for New Haven’s senior citizens to find a game of Penochle.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced last Thursday night that three of the six senior centers in New Haven — West River, Westville and Bella Vista — will be closed by July in order to reduce the city’s operating costs. Seniors who currently frequent the centers will have the option of going to three larger centers — Dixwell, Eastshore and Atwater — though many said they will not.
All seven seniors at the West River Senior Center interviewed said that they will not relocate, saying that their current center is the only place they want to be.
“This is the only center that treats people like human beings,” said Patricia DeVore, a member of West River. “When West River closes, we’re just gonna go home and die.”
Michelle Butler, director of the West River center, had similar concerns. She pointed out that many seniors at the center have no family in New Haven, and that the meal they get at the center is the only meal they get all day.
But City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga stressed that the city is still committed to serving its seniors. Speaking of the difficult choices surrounding budget cuts, she insisted that the cuts will still allow the city to serve its seniors. For instance, she said, arrangements could be made in terms of transportation to the remaining three centers.
But Butler said transportation was not the primary issue.
“At this point, they’re not willing to go anywhere else,” said Butler. “We’re a close-knit family.”
And many seniors felt marginalized by their mayor.
“DeStefano has never come down to see us,” Janet Gregory said. “Before you close something, you should come and see how things are.”
Interjected Noreen Jones, “He’s definitely not getting my vote.”
In an effort to close the city’s $29 million deficit, the mayor’s proposed budget would cut elderly services by 28 percent, from $979,712 to $704,417. Closing West River would save $33,167, according to the New Haven Independent.
Indeed, these numbers have already made their way through the aldermanic council once before. The mayor planned to close West River last May, but ultimately kept it open after protests and support from the proprietor, Audrey Grava, who offered to reduce rent by $250 per month.
But Mayorga argued that this year was different. Although she could not cite the total amount saved by closing the centers, she explained that savings would be significant.
When asked about the possibility of asking the proprietors to reduce rent, as was offered last year, she emphasized the importance of a balanced budget.
Directors of the Westville and Bella Vista centers declined multiple requests for an interview Wednesday. And Donald Dimenstein, acting director of New Haven Elderly Services, could not be reached for comment.
The seniors also believe that this year is different from the last. Jones, a senior who actively protested the proposed closing of West River last year, said she is resigned to accept the closing this year.
“The bottom line is that the city of New Haven will do whatever it wants, without considering what the people want,” she said.
For others, the shock had yet to set in.
“I just don’t know why this is happening to us,” said Mary Jane Simmons, a regular member of West River for 11 years. “Why us?”
In addition to closing the senior centers, DeStefano announced last week that 127 city employees will be laid off by June.