One Friday in May, the five-person staff at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC) prepared to get their cowboy on.
The center, located at the busy intersection of Rainier Avenue South and South Holly Street, hosts a themed Rainbow Bingo every few months. May 12 was Western night. There’s a degree to which it seems to drive Lynda Greene, executive director of the center, a bit crazy: boxes stacked up with prizes, supplies and extra beverages filling every space of every office.
But she loves the event.
It’s a party, pulling in every demographic over the age of 21 for Jell-O shots, beer, wine and a lively game of Bingo emceed by local celebrity Sylvia O’Stayformore, well known on the senior center circuit. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an order of queer nuns devoted to ministry and community service, help sell tickets and split the bucket prize. Friday night’s take was $470, to be shared between the winner and the center, but the champion donated their half back to SESSC, Greene said.
The center needs every dollar it can get these days, a story echoed by the heads of other senior centers in Seattle — there’s too much need for too little money for a population that’s expected to increase as the baby boom generation begins to seek services.
In recent years SESSC and other centers have raised the majority of their own funds. But centers are scrambling to fill tens of thousands of dollars each in cuts due to changes at United Way of King County in 2016.
The philanthropic organization reallocated almost $700,000 last year that once went to Sound Generations, which coordinates services for older adults in King County. The money was diverted to combat homelessness in Seattle and help young children.
That meant cuts equal to 10 percent of some centers’ budgets in some cases.
The shift came as a surprise, one that required the Shoreline Lake Forest Park Senior Center to find whatever efficiencies it could to avoid cutting services, said Bob Lohmeyer, director of the center.
“It did not affect the number of people we serve,” Lohmeyer said. “That will not be the case going forward.” All told, the people who run senior centers in Seattle are finding themselves spending time looking for new resources that they would prefer to spend delivering services to elderly clients. The situation does not look like it will change any time soon.
To make the case for funding senior centers, advocates try to explain what service they provide.
“It’s not just apple sauce and walkers,” said Kate Harkins, community engagement coordinator at SESSC.
Senior centers are communal spaces where older folks can go and socialize, get inexpensive meals and participate in extracurricular activities such as arts and exercise.
They also get access to social workers who connect them to resources, keep them in their homes, arrange medical appointments and more.
Many centers have trimmed whatever fat they had already, be it encouraging participants to donate supplies such as paper products and trash bags (an almost $6,000 savings at SESSC) or reorganizing responsibilities to fit more work into fewer hours.
The only thing left, in many cases, is cutting personnel. That often means reducing the hours of the social worker.
That’s a problem, said Carlye Teel, the director of the Ballard Senior Center.
The social worker employed by Ballard Senior Center works 24 hours a week running support groups, meeting with people for individual help, arranging hospital visits and helping homeless elders find housing.
Teel wishes she had two social workers full-time to help the 4,000 individuals who access her center every year.
“We can’t get any leaner,” Teel said.
It’s a recurring theme across the network of senior centers overseen by Sound Generations. All are trying to cope with the decrease in funding. They need those flexible funds: While they all face the same financial woes, no two senior centers in the network operate alike, and they have to be able to allocate their dollars where they see fit.
There’s SESSC, which helps people in the most diverse ZIP code in Seattle — 98118 — and provides exercise classes, looms for weaving and chair volleyball. There’s the Central Area Senior Center, which helps older folks in an area that’s rapidly gentrifying. Sno-Valley Senior Center, over two hours from Seattle by public transit and an hour by car, has clients that come from 15 miles away from the family farms they might now have to sell.
Lisa Yeager, director of Sno-Valley Senior Center, spends 70 percent of her time fundraising, she reckons.
“I’d rather be spending it doing more programs, more partnerships with the community and such,” Yeager said. “We do quite a bit, but there’s always more that can be done.”
Lake City Senior Center, the newest, doesn’t have its own building and instead pays rent at the Lake City Community Center.
That center won money from the Seattle City Council after packing the halls at budget time to request funds for the underserved north end, which has a high population of seniors and people of color.
Founded in 2016, Lake City Senior Center never had the benefit of United Way funding, but it feels the lack of money overall, said Claudine Wallace, the program manager at the center.
Without a physical location, the center can’t make extra revenue by renting out its facility like the Central Area Senior Center — with exceptional views of Lake Washington — does to bring in extra revenue.
United Way of King County hears the concerns, but ultimately the organization put its money toward the most critical need, particularly people without homes and young children, said Lauren McGowan, director of family stability with United Way of King County.
“Senior centers certainly provide a space for supporting older adults, caring for them,” McGowan said. “We have limited resources. How do we move people off the streets as quickly as possible?”
Those who work in senior centers counter that it’s the grandparents who take care of children when their parents are working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet in a city as expensive as Seattle, and it’s grandparents who become homeless when their property taxes swallow their Social Security payments.
They need more financing to open the centers during evening hours to accommodate baby boomers who need services, but are still working daytime hours. They need social workers available for clients who have nowhere else to go, because it saves lives.
Jaime Clark, the social worker at SESSC, sat down with a client on the verge of committing suicide, and successfully counseled the person through it, Harkins said.
“Lives are saved by coming here,” she said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full May 17 issue.
Taxing the silver age: Property taxes a burden to King County seniors on fixed incomes
Weighing the cost of rent