Seniors, Eviction Discussed At First BronxWorks Senior Housing Forum

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The one theme that dominated BronxWorks’ Senior Housing Forum is that there is plenty of information available to help seniors facing homelessness but this data is largely unknown by this vulnerable population.  The theme underlined presentations by a panel of housing experts at the event.  As State Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda remarked, “People don’t have the information to help prevent evictions and protect themselves against unscrupulous landlords.”

The Senior Housing Forum, the first of what BronxWorks hopes will be an annual event, was held before a packed audience Thursday, December 4th, at the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center north of Yankee Stadium at 1130 Grand Concourse.  Organizers of the forum, who led the discussion, were Julie Belizaire-Spitzer, director of the BronxWorks Homeless Prevention & Access to Benefits department, and Marie Edwards, program director of the department’s Homeless Prevention & Relocation Support Services.

Assemblyman Luis R. Sepulveda (AD 87, the Bronx) poses with Julie Belizaire-Spitzer, left, and Marie Edwards, BronxWorks staffers who organized the Senior Housing Forum

“The plight of seniors in the Bronx facing homelessness is a problem that can’t be overlooked,” said Ms. Spitzer.  “We want to inform seniors and their families that there is hope.”

One of the programs that offers hope for seniors is the Seniors Homeless Prevention Program (SHPP) which was re-established this past April after an initial, smaller sale pilot operated from July 2011 through June 2012.  Ms. Edwards said the project was expanded this past spring to include an intake specialist and two case workers who are at Bronx Housing Court.  Because of the heavy volume of referrals from judges in Bronx Housing Court, the BronxWorks staff quickly accumulated a huge caseload, Ms. Edwards said.  

Since the spring re-launching, SHPP, a case management program, has screened 369 referrals since and accepted 169 cases to date, far exceeding the 200 referrals the program planned to screen over a 12-month period.  “The program has such heavy demand because so many seniors are in Bronx Housing Court with no one to advocate on their behalf,” explains Ms. Edwards.

Calling seniors “an overlooked and underserved population,” Ms. Edwards recounted a range of factors that can contribute to homelessness.  They include ever-increasing rents spurred by the gentrification of the Bronx and the projected growth of a population that largely subsists on fixed incomes along with Social Security.  The population of seniors in the Bronx is expected to double between now and 2050, she said.  “Most seniors do not have disposable incomes and face debts that increase exponentially and become impossible to pay back.  Seniors also suffer from rates of illness, physical disability, and mental health issues that the average tenant does not.”

Stations where BronxWorks staffers answered queries on available benefits and entitlements were thronged at the Senior Housing Forum

Eviction rates have been rising steadily for seniors, she noted.  Citywide evictions jumped from 25,109 in 2008 to 30,864 in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, an increase of 22.9 percent in five years.  This almost mirrors the 22 percent increase in the Bronx.  With about 17 percent of the city’s population, the Bronx has 34.2 percent of the city’s evictions.  Older adults who live in the borough are therefore extremely vulnerable.

Funded by the Oak Foundation, Amalgamated Bank, and other private funders, SHPP was created to address these issues, provide case management services, and correct the factors that could push a senior to the brink of homelessness.  To ameliorate situations and help older adults remain out of the shelter system, BronxWorks helps seniors obtain arrears assistance from private charities, government agencies, and other sources, Ms. Edwards explained.  

SHPP also determines the eligibility of clients for rent and income supports such as SCRIE (Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption), food stamps, Medicare or Medicaid savings plans and other entitlements that seniors may not know about. and other entitlements that seniors may not know about.  A major SHPP service is to help seniors navigate the Bronx Housing Court.  When necessary, SHPP staff collaborates with legal providers like the Legal Aid Society or Bronx Legal Services to resolve particularly complicated cases.

Deputy Bronx Borough President Aurelia Greene spoke about the resources the Borough President’s Office offers that are available to seniors, including its updated Bronx Resource Guide for people 60 or older, which now includes listings of available senior housing.

Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda discussed SCRIE at length. He said that the eligibility threshold has been increased from $29,000 annually to $50,000, a rise of nearly 75% that will prove to be important to many of the seniors BronxWorks serves. He said his office receives about 1,000 contacts a year from people needing help, and about 70 percent pertain to housing problems.

“Even though legislators have many responsibilities, that should not discourage people from contacting them for help,” said Assemblyman Sepulveda.  “Elected officials have a lot of information of use to seniors with problems involving housing.  Hold elected officials to the fire.”  Before he was elected to the assembly, Mr. Sepulveda offered legal assistance to tenants at risk of eviction, including seniors.

“Realizing that many stakeholders lack an awareness of the growing vulnerability of seniors to homelessness in our borough, we hope this housing forum can serve as a catalyst for a bigger, citywide effort whose time has come,” Ms. Spitzer summed up.

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