How one local organization is helping poor and isolated seniors
By Sabina Mollot
Give us your poor, your homeless, your isolated, your elderly, your mentally ill, your hoarders on the brink of getting evicted.
This is essentially the mission statement of a nonprofit organization that has been based out of the Sirovich Senior Center building on East 12th Street for the past 28 years. Called Project ORE, its focus is on helping people who fall into those categories, as well as observant Jewish seniors, whether the assistance comes in the form a hot kosher meal or advocacy in housing court.
Project ORE is named after the Hebrew word for light as well as being an acronym for Outreach to the Elderly. It’s run by the Educational Alliance, the parent organization of Sirovich as well as the 14th Street Y. While almost all of its members are seniors, Project ORE isn’t technically a senior center. In fact, to even qualify for ORE’s services, participants have to be older adults who fall into three of the following categories: Homeless, formerly homeless, mentally ill, low-income, isolated (meaning no nearby family or support network) or Jewish. To find out if someone qualifies, a would-be client is invited to come by for lunch and then an assessment is done with an on-site social worker.
Around half of the organization’s members come from the surrounding neighborhoods of the East Village, the Lower East Side and Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village. The rest, however, arrive by train from Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. There are also some homeless members living in shelters, but just a handful.
“We have very few street homeless,” said the center’s director, Tara Rullo. “I would say most live with friends or family members.”
Still, there’s no shortage of housing challenges faced by members. Project ORE’s Associate Director Jackson Sherratt noted a recent example of a client whose income was too low to qualify even for low-income housing. However, by earning $16,000 a year, the same client was also considered too rich for Medicaid. As for what ORE can do, Rullo said if a client has a history of homelessness or mental illness, the organization can apply for supportive housing.
“We can help navigate the system,” she said. “There are more housing options available and we will research and push for that person to have housing. It can be difficult to navigate. If someone’s in a shelter we’ll advocate for them because once you’re in there you need someone on the outside fighting for you.”
Then there are the clients in rent-regulated apartments who end up facing eviction due to hoarding, or worse, hoarding that leads to infestations of bedbugs. While Project ORE doesn’t employ attorneys, its social workers have advocated for tenants in court and there’s also in-house psychiatric support available that’s specific to helping hoarders. The organization will also communicate with landlords and co-op boards to assure them they’re working with the resident to alleviate the problem. And while ORE’s staffers have certainly encountered landlords who don’t want to be cooperative, they’ve yet to see a case where an accusation of hoarding is just an excuse to get rid of a low-rent paying tenant.
“The problem is real,” said Rullo, “and quite extreme. There’s all kinds of risks associated with this behavior; there’s a risk to other tenants. If you hoard, your bedbugs are my bedbugs.”
Additionally, because it’s such a widespread problem, a current goal of the organization is to provide training on dealing with the issue to other organizations and agencies, from community boards to hospitals to the FDNY. “We’ve become kind of the face of hoarding,” said Rullo. “We’ve done conferences. We’re going to do a webinar.”
For clients with a problem, clearing out apartments is sometimes done through contractors, as well as onsite psychiatric help, as long as clients agree to it.
“It’s the client’s choice; we’re not going to do it behind their back,” said Rullo. But, she added, when faced with keeping their cluttered household or being made to move, the process isn’t usually resisted. “When there’s a risk to a rent-controlled or a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s a great motivator.”
However, not all Project ORE clients have problems that require intervention services. While many are facing some kind of crisis, social isolation is also a big reason for showing up to the center.
“This is a place where they can come in and make friends or partake in Jewish services,” said Rullo.
The kosher meals are also a draw, with the center serving 40-50 people for lunch each day. At the dining room, meals are brought to clients rather than having anyone wait on line. This, said Sherratt, is to make it as different from a soup kitchen as possible so clients feel welcome to stick around.
“You’re not getting line, you’re not getting a ticket. The idea is to have a place where you’re being served,” said Sherratt. Additionally, the dining area is going to be expanded soon, to make it more like a cafe. Clients will then be able to have coffee, tea or pastries from a mobile cart and have access to WiFi. “It’s another opportunity for socialization,” said Sherratt. “They can meet a friend or maybe hear some poetry or something.”
ORE’s headquarters, located in the building’s mezzanine level, overlook East 12th Street west of First Avenue, with the dining room its main common area. On a recent day after lunch was served, there were still half a dozen seniors sitting around either chatting or dozing at their tables. Several client-made paintings were on display on the walls. In a room nearby, a few others were watching a film.
One client who was sitting in the dining room, a resident of the East Village, said he started utilizing ORE’s services after finding out about them through a friend. The man, who asked that his name not be published, said his friend had gotten sick and ended up at Bellevue Hospital. When he went to visit him, the friend asked that he let someone named Lenny from Project ORE know that he was there. When the patient’s friend went to the center to find Lenny, who turned out to be a social worker, Lenny asked him if he wanted to stay for lunch. So he did.
Ten years later, the client still comes each day after walking over from his East 4th Street apartment. He does this, he said, for the exercise as much as for the meals, which come from a kosher caterer in Brooklyn. He also enjoys the center’s classes, which include Yiddish, a torah study group and fitness.
Funding for ORE’s services comes largely from grants from the UJA Federation of New York, as well as individual donations. The annual budget is $700,000 for Project ORE as well as for Safety Net, a sister organization that’s geared towards the needs of local seniors who are homebound. At this time, Safety Net has 172 members while Project Ore has around 200. Due to a steady demand for its services, which are all offered for free, Project ORE has always run on a deficit, and Rullo said the organization is going to have to start relying more on private funds.
“We can’t fundraise enough,” she admitted, “because it’s such a needy population.” Along with donations, the organization is also seeking volunteers, especially for the holidays, to do things like help serve lunch and connect with clients.
One volunteer who was interviewed by Town & Village, Stuyvesant Town resident Dianne Vertal, said she recently got involved with ORE after hearing Sherratt speak about its mission. This was at an event at her congregation, Town & Village Synagogue. Prior to that, she’d also heard about Project ORE from a friend who’d been doing a research project on Jewish poverty in New York. When her friend mentioned that ORE needed help for a Veterans Day lunch, Vertal volunteered.
“People think it’s one of the wealthier ethnic groups,” said Vertal. But, she added, “many of our elderly present a vast array of needs.”