Elderly D.C. residents demand more funding


Seniors gather Monday to rally against potential cuts to benefits and resources during a Workforce and Community Affairs budget hearing on the fifth floor of the Wilson Building in Washington. (Jared Soares/The Washington Post)

Undaunted by Monday’s rain, about 300 elderly residents from around the District converged downtown to demand more money for senior services.

Some wore fancy hats, some used walkers and wheelchairs, some held hand-drawn signs. Overflowing out of the budget hearing of the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs into a second room, they urged the City Council to move $5.8 million from Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s wish list for the D.C. Office on Aging onto the 2014 budget.

The proposed budget for senior services is around $30 million, But senior citizen advocates say more is needed to support life in a city where basic necessities have become increasingly expensive.

“We’re just trying to get what belongs to us because these seniors have given their time and their life and they should be able to live comfortably in their old age,” said Fannie Broadus, 74, a retired postal worker.

The seniors had planned to rally outside the building, but the rain pushed them indoors, where the committee, headed by former mayor Marion Barry, heard from advocates urging more support for senior programs.

Tonya Jackson Smallwood, president of Family Matters of Greater Washington, testified that her organization will soon have to stop administering a District-wide safety net program that it has administered for 30 years. The program provides transportation, health care and financial counseling for seniors.

“Sadly, due to funding issues, nonprofits like ours are finding it increasingly difficult to bear the disproportionate cost burden for managing these programs,” she said, adding that agencies were hit particularly hard by the recession.

Turnout was unprecedentedly high for seniors, said Sally White, executive director of Iona Senior Services, a nonprofit service provider that helped plan the rally. She said the large crowd reflected a growing urgency.

“The people with the greatest needs are the ones less able to speak up for themselves,” she said. “Every grantee program is really at risk.”

Since 2009, she said, seven nonprofit organizations have dropped out of being lead agency providers and at least one has shut its doors.

About 11 percent of the District's 630,000 residents are 65 or older, and more than half of those residents live alone.

The additional funding request is not unreasonable, said Ed Lazare, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a budget watchdog group, adding that senior advocacy groups have in the past year become more vocal.

“The fact that it’s on the mayor’s wish list is a reflection that the mayor sees this as an important issue,” he said. “It’s a sign that there’s momentum in the direction of funding these groups.”

The 77-year-old Barry drew cheers and raised arms as he told a story about his mother, a domestic worker who insisted on using the front door to go in and out of her employers’ house, and he drew more clapping as he vowed to support the seniors.

“The best time in your life shouldn’t be the worst time,” he said. “One day they’ll learn that we’ve got senior power, don’t we?”

Several attendees murmured, “Amen.”

Kenyan McDuffie, a Ward 5 council member who chairs the Committee on Government Operations, said elderly constituents have told him it is getting harder to make ends meet in the District. “So I think it’s important to do what we can for our senior citizens,” he said.

The seniors themselves listed wide-ranging needs, from transportation to health care to recreation facilities to housing.

“We’re hoping we can get a community recreation room, so we can have line dancing and exercise,” said Grace Peterson, 80, of the senior center she attends in Dupont Park. Right now, “you can play board games or go to the bathroom or go outside, but we don’t have facilities to do other activities.”

Carolyn Sue Williams said she had come to demand services for her 70-year-old sister. “There are no senior day care centers in Ward 8,” she said. “I have to pay $9 every day for her to take the bus” to a center in a different area.

Many attendees wore red clothing or hats, part of a collective effort to show solidarity and strength.

“They told us to wear red,” said Broadus, the retired postal worker, sitting in the front row in a red coat, shirt, pants, socks and shoes, and red hoop earrings. “I guess it means we’re out for blood.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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