New Bronx Senior Center Aims to Provide a More Welcoming Atmosphere
By Winnie Hu
But to get to the center, Mr. Esola, 64, has to take an hourlong ride on the D train from his home in Norwood, the last stop in the Bronx. Though he has tried senior centers in his own neighborhood, Mr. Esola, who is gay, said, “I didn’t identify with the people there,” and has always returned to the Midtown center, which specifically serves people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Now Mr. Esola will have an option closer to home. Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders, or SAGE, the organization that operates the Midtown center, is opening its first senior center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Bronx on Wednesday as part of a $1.5 million, cityfunded expansion of L.G.B.T.focused senior programs and support services across the five boroughs. The Bronx center will operate five days a week from rented space on the second floor of the Union Community Health Center on East 188th Street. It will offer a range of social, cultural, art and health
programs, as well as hot lunches.
“It is the largest investment of support services for L.G.B.T. elders in the city’s history,” said Ritchie Torres, a Bronx city councilman who is gay and who led the effort for city funding. “It’s hard to imagine a constituency that has been more invisible to city government and underserved by society at large.” Mr. Torres and other supporters of the expansion contend that these people are more likely to be in need of help or support because they are often single, have no children and may be estranged from their families. About 100,000 of New York City’s 1.5 million residents who are 60 and older are believed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to SAGE leaders and other advocates. Nearly onethird of that group is estimated to live in poverty.
New York’s Department for the Aging finances 250 senior centers across the city, and provides nearly $773,000 annually for the SAGE center in Midtown, which opened in 2012. As part of the expansion, SAGE received $1.2 million to open the new Bronx center, convert another SAGE site with limited programs in Harlem into a fullservice senior center, and team up with community organizations in Brooklyn and on Staten Island to increase programs and services.
The remaining $300,000 from the expansion is being used to support a center run by Queens Community House. The money has allowed the center, which was displaced by a fire last year, to hire a new assistant director, provide hot daily lunches and expand wellness and recreational offerings as it prepares to move to a permanent home.
Donna M. Corrado, the commissioner of the Department for the Aging, said: “The increased funding is recognition that more programs are needed to better serve the unique needs of the older L.G.B.T. community. SAGE offers a place where L.G.B.T. seniors can attend programming, socialize and obtain services in a safe space with people of similar interests and life experiences.” Joyce Banks, 70, a Bronx resident, said that after her partner of 32 years died of cancer in 2013, she started going to the SAGE site in Harlem for comfort, companionship and help applying for financial assistance after losing her partner’s income. “It was my home away from home,” she said. “I’m not the friendliest person, but you can’t dwell and sit in the house and become a recluse. You have to get up and out.”
The SAGE center in Midtown serves more than 1,500 people a year, about onethird of whom live outside Manhattan. Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, said that many older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face discrimination or feel isolated in more traditional senior centers in their neighborhoods. “What we hear is, ‘We can go to senior center A or senior center B to get lunch, but we’re sitting by ourselves if we’re open,’ ” Mr. Adams said. “The fact is people should not have to travel an hour or two to get to a senior center that is welcoming and friendly to them.”
Some advocates and Bronx residents view the new center as long overdue in a borough where they say it has been especially difficult for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. One of the city’s most vicious antigay crimes took place in the Bronx in 2010 after members of a street gang called the Latin King Goonies lured a man to an apartment and then beat and tortured him for hours.
Two years later, the borough’s only center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, the Bronx Community Pride Center, closed amid financial problems after its former leader, Lisa Winters, stole money for personal expenses. Since then, a new community group, known as the Bronx L.G.B.T.Q. Center, has been formed; it is providing limited services such as a free legal clinic as it raises funds for a permanent home.
“I’m intent on making the Bronx much more gayfriendly,” Councilman Torres said, adding that he has heard no opposition to the expansion of the services.
In the Bronx, where advocates estimate there are about 16,800 older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the new center will serve up to 50 hot meals a day and host a reading club, yoga and tai chi lessons, a media room, and bilingual EnglishSpanish programs geared specifically to local residents. For instance, in a borough facing a crisis in obesity and diabetes, the center plans to have a nutritionist show people how to modify traditional family recipes to make them healthier.
Geo Genao, 64, one of the center’s four staff members, is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who said he wanted to help others find a support network among people with similar experiences, the way he did. “For me, to be gay in the Latino culture is very hard because the mentality they have about being gay is like, ‘You are sick — it’s not something right,’ ” Mr. Genao said.
Mr. Esola, a retired banker who lives alone, said he plans to visit the Bronx center, especially on freezing days when he will welcome a shorter commute. He said he continues to face discrimination at times for being gay. Last year, he recalled, he was trying to pass two men on a sidewalk in Chelsea when they accused him of coming too close, called him gay, and pushed him hard enough that he fell to the ground.
“I just think straight people have been not that friendly to gay people,” he said. “I think we need our own places.”