Mission seniors hurt by state budget cuts, community services offer help
By Beth Renneisen
With a slash of the pen, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated funding for a tax rebate very dear to Dixayen Rodriguez’s elderly Mission District clients at the 30th Street Senior Center. The Homeowner and Renter Assistance Program — offering a small yearly assistance check to qualified low-income seniors — was deleted from the California state budget in a flurry of line-item vetoes in September and already is being felt here.
“For some of our seniors, the check allowed them to buy Christmas presents for their grandchildren,” said Rodriguez, an assistance specialist at the Institute on Aging, which has an office in the center. “For others, it could mean food on the table that month.”
In the multi-purpose building, a mainly volunteer staff serves low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking elderly or disabled persons, for whom housing is one of the biggest issues. For people living below poverty level, that extra yearly check for up to $472.60 bought necessities they simply could not afford otherwise, as the high cost of owning or renting in San Francisco consumes most of their income. Social workers such as Rodriguez, however, do their best to fill in the gaps.
Clients can drop in for a variety of services, including low-cost meals, legal aid, medical consultations, or to get help searching for living quarters at Rodriguez’s office. Her goal is to keep clients independent — whatever it takes. Finding government subsidized housing is especially critical, since there is a one-to-five-year waiting list. The economic downturn has resulted in a greater demand for basic needs, too. Center Director Valorie Villela notes that the number of meals served in the dining room has risen from about 180 per day to 240 just in the last few months.
Rodriguez — herself an immigrant from Nicaragua as a teenager — acts as a “point of entry” for people who have no experience navigating the community service system. From her desk in the spotless and cheerfully decorated Senior Center, she fields a stream of questions in rapid-fire Spanish from clients who regularly popped in while we chatted. “Some need just a little help with a form,” she explained. “Some need a lot more.”
In tough economic times, Mission seniors find a bright spot in their lives in the bustling building on a typical Friday afternoon. The sound of salsa music produced by a live band at a dance in the activity room drifted through the halls as we passed pockets of seniors busily weaving, reading and playing cards. Back at the dance, ninety-seven year-old Margarita Hernandez — who has volunteered at the center for 30 years — spun around the floor with other nattily dressed seniors, who were clearly having a great time. With a big smile and a wave of her arms she pronounced the event “wonderful.”
Rodriguez credits a social worker for changing her life for the better by helping her and her sister to find financial aid for college. She now finds social work to be a direct way to open up opportunities for other immigrants — especially the elderly — and hopes that state funds are freed up for the rebate checks soon.
“Why should the later years of life be unpleasant?” Rodriguez wondered. “You don’t get old and stop living
you just stop working.”
For more information on services and volunteer opportunities at the 30th Street Senior Center, call (415) 550-2230, or the Institute on Aging office, (415) 920-0588.