About 50 people held a demonstration in downtown Santa Monica Thursday against proposed funding cuts to the city’s only senior services organization.
WISE & Healthy Aging would lose $123,000 in grant funding under the city of Santa Monica’s proposed budget, which eliminates $86.2 million in ongoing spending amid a budget crisis caused by the pandemic’s impact on city tax revenues. The nonprofit typically receives more than $1 million from the city each year, comprising 17% of its overall budget.
The proposed budget eliminates about $1 million in funding to 19 other nonprofits that assist low-income Santa Monicans, or 12% of each program’s grant funding from the city.
On Tuesday, City Council voted to restore $6.4 million in funding to housing, youth, recreational, mobility and sustainability programs that were up for elimination earlier this month — including three social services nonprofits, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Westside Food Bank and Meals on Wheels West.
WISE & Healthy Aging’s members are worried that the organization won’t be able to serve as many seniors with $123,000 less in funding.
Under the city’s proposed budget, WHA would lose more than $46,000 to support its senior center, paratransit and mental health counseling programs, said president Grace Cheng Braun.
Cheng Braun said the city’s funding to WHA’s Adult Day Service Center — which it is planning to reduce by $17,000 — allows the center to provide “scholarships” for low-income residents, mostly Spanish-speaking seniors who live in the Pico neighborhood.
With the stay-at-home order in effect, the center, which serves 48 seniors, has also lost $250,000 in income from other participants, Cheng Braun said.
Carla Alvarado said the Adult Day Service Center’s Spanish-speaking Alzheimer’s day care program that her 82-year-old father has participated in for the last five years has prevented his condition from deteriorating.
“Given the amount of time my dad has had Alzheimer’s, he should be in more of a regression stage, but he’s actually improved or stayed the same,” Alvarado said. “It’s given him purpose … he feels like he matters.”
In the center’s “Somos Amigos” program, Alvarado’s father, Isidro, shares stories and sings songs with other longtime Pico residents. Alvarado said the daily activities keep his brain stimulated and his mood cheerful, and allows her to continue working at Santa Monica College instead of caring for her father full-time.
“My dad’s quality of life has improved immeasurably,” she said. “He brings so much light to our lives.”
Alvarado said if reduction in funding for the program leads to a reduction in services, it would put financial strain on residents who would have to work less in order to care for their parents and grandparents.
“A lot of the things the city is cutting funding for impact low-income families who have been living here for years on end,” she said.
67-year-old Sandra Tolbert, who moved from Alabama to Santa Monica at age 18, said a social worker in WISE & Health Aging’s care management program helped her stay housed by resolving a miscommunication that put her Section 8 voucher in jeopardy, helped her enroll in Medi-Cal and ensured that the Salvation Army delivers her a food box each week during the pandemic.
“She saved me,” Tolbert said. “I would have been on the street. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
Under the proposed budget, the city would cut nearly $30,000 in funding to the care management program. WHA’s lunch program, which serves seniors a free or $5 lunch every day, would also see a roughly $30,000 reduction in funding.
Each program supports about 280 low-income seniors in Santa Monica, Cheng Braun said. During the pandemic, WHA has been providing to-go food boxes for seniors and calling seniors at home rather than delivering the programs in person.
“Because we provide direct services, it is going to mean a significant number of seniors aren’t going to be receiving services,” Cheng Braun said earlier this month. “Seniors are most at-risk and seriously impacted by this pandemic, and we have to make sure they aren’t becoming so isolated that it starts to impact their health and wellbeing.”
Dr. Scott Kaiser, director of geriatric cognitive health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, said loneliness has adverse impacts on health and cognitive function in seniors, and the pandemic has cut many elderly people off from their social outlets.
He said WHA has not only brought food, care management and wellness programs to seniors’ homes during the pandemic, but in many cases served as their only social support for the last 10 weeks.
“I think cutting funding right now is really unjust and unwise,” Kaiser said. “We have to think about where support is needed most right now — it’s with frail, vulnerable older adults who are vulnerable both to the virus and the social isolation that’s been part of our very necessary public health response.”
City spokesperson Constance Farrell said the city has worked to preserve as many programs serving seniors as possible, including the Preserving Our Diversity (POD) program, which provides rental assistance to low-income seniors.
She said city leadership asks the community to join in this effort by supporting local nonprofits directly or through the We Are Santa Monica fund at www.santamonica.gov/
“We care deeply about our older residents and have prioritized their needs in this unprecedented crisis as we balance the needs of all with limited resources to do it,” Farrell said.