Nonprofit ends senior services citing funding
Programmatic changes taking effect at the United South End Settlements this Friday have alarmed seniors, who no longer will be served. Citing financial strain, USES leadership announced it will realign its mission to focus on children and families living in poverty, discontinuing a number of other long-standing programs.
“We want to move from being the type of organization that has a lot of touch points with a lot of people to being an organization that has a really deep impact on the people we serve,” Nikki Stewart, USES’s vice president of development, told the Banner.
Meanwhile, Gladys Grullon, who has taught senior classes for about two decades, says losing senior services will mean dissolving a community.
“It’s like a family,” Grullon said. “It’s important for them to have a place where they can feel free [and] feel good.”
Seniors and community members have said they do not believe the senior services are a significant expense, that it may not be possible to replace them and that the community was insufficiently engaged or consulted during the re-envisioning process.
On June 30, USES ends its senior exercise and wellness classes, food distribution, home repair services and hot lunches, as well as adult basic education. USES also will reduce involvement in the South End Family Engagement Network and will seek to raise money by moving most programming into its building at 48 Rutland Street, thus freeing space in the Harriet Tubman house for rental. Stewart said diminishing funding and rising costs created insurmountable challenges.
Meanwhile, some seniors said there are other programs serving low-income youth in the South End, but few alternatives for seniors. There are no other senior centers in the area, and Stewart noted a service gap affecting local low-income seniors. In an June 2017 open letter to the USES board, Joyce King, on behalf of a group of concerned South End seniors, questioned the ability to replicate senior services elsewhere and expressed concerns both about finding physical space and ensuring seniors feel comfortable there.
Community and the redesign
Stewart said that during its strategic planning process, USES engaged Wellspring consultants, who met with more than 100 people during October 2016, including board members, staff, funders, donors, public officials, community leaders, representatives from nearby schools and housing developments and program participants, she said. Of those consulted, approximately 20 to 30 were seniors.
USES then developed a new organizational mission: to focus on children and families in poverty. Achieving this vision meant ending some programs. These decisions were based on lack of alignment with the new target audience, enrollment levels, space requirements versus USES’s desire to reduce facility expenses, potential funding and financial performance, Stewart said.
In January 2017, leadership began to inform stakeholders of the planned changes through methods such as meetings, email, blog posts and announcements made to classes. On April 26, 2017 a meeting was held with 45 seniors to explain the changes slated for implementation in two month’s time. But this meeting happened only because concerned seniors demanded it, community member Alison Barnett said. Community members have said more public meetings and engagement should have occurred, along with more problem-solving before final decisions were made.
In a meeting with the Banner, several seniors and community members charged that more effort should have been undertaken to find funding to continue the programs. Annie Collins, who has attended various senior exercise, art and technology classes, said when she and others offered help raise money, they were told they could not target the funding to senior services. While the financial issues spurring the change were said to have been plaguing the organization for a decade, Joyce King questioned why USES had not acted sooner to fundraise or engage the community in problem solving.
“There was insufficient warning and no community input,” King wrote.
Stewart said that this fiscal year, USES spent 9.5 percent of its $4.3 million budget on senior services, but only intended to spend 6.8 percent. The programs overran its budget by about $115,700. In total, USES faces a $800,000 deficit, Stewart said.
Another problem affecting senior programs is the determination that it served fewer people than planned. For example, in fiscal year 2017, 159 seniors participated in health and wellness classes, down from 263 in the previous year. As such, one- to two-thirds of seats were vacant in each class on the average day, Stewart said. Not counting those served by monthly food distributions, about 25 seniors attend programs on a daily basis, with seven to ten people a day participating in the daily hot lunch program.
Gladys Grullon has taught at the Harriet Tubman house for about two decades. She currently runs popular line-dancing classes and stretching and exercising classes, which help build senior’s strength and prevent against falls, she said. Between her two classes, she has about 25 to 30 students a week. According to Grullon, such classes help with physical and mental resilience and provide important social opportunities. Collins said the value of senior services is not just the classes but having a community where people feel welcome.
As USES disengages from senior services, its leadership seeks others to take up the work, with some success thus far. A home repair program conducted under a Department of Neighborhood Development contract was transferred seamlessly to a new provider, Stewart said. The Greater Boston Foodbank has found a new provider for food distribution. Basic adult education, also funded through government programs, will transition to another provider.
For many years, Kit Clark Senior Services had contracted with USES to provide daily lunch services. As of Monday, June 26, Kit Clark, the city and USES were still seeking another local partner with a suitable kitchen space. As of yet, none has been secured to take on senior health and wellness classes.
“Funding is a concern for them as well,” Stewart said.
Concerns on new mission
One South End resident raised a concern that the transition of programs away from the Harriet Tubman to the Rutland building means the focus is shifting to serve more affluent urban dwellers. She and others also said USES’s new vision resembles that of the now-defunct LIFT-Boston, where the executive director worked previously. The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said that given that LIFT-Boston closed, she fears the model will not be successful now.
Meanwhile, Stewart says there is a difference: LIFT focused on coaching adults. USES will provide on-going long-term programming for children and parents, along with coaching.