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End of an era
Senior citizen activity center closing
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Photo courtesy of BOB WITTENBERG
From left, Joan Woodbury, Louise Samson, Harold Bolin and Lillian Reyes enjoy a game of canasta at Senior Citizens Services’ senior center.
CLEARWATER – After about 50 years of providing a citizen center to the Clearwater area, Senior Citizens Services Inc. will close its center at 1204 Rogers St. on Sept. 15.

The nonprofit organization will still offer its information services and try to move some of its activities over to its new office in Prospect Towers, the affordable senior apartment residence it financially supports at 801 Chestnut St.

“Basically, the case is our board of directors decided that we could make better utilization of the funds that we expend on this center by supporting other senior programs and our low-income senior housing project here in Clearwater, and the reason for that decision is that we just don’t have sufficient traffic into the center for at least six months of the year when the snowbirds go home,” said Bob Wittenberg, executive director of Senior Citizens Services Inc. “We have a loyal following, but it doesn’t justify the $200,000 a year that we spend to keep the center open.”

Wittenberg assures the public that the organization will continue to exist, but it will just not have the activity center. Wittenberg is retiring at the end of the year, so instead of hiring a replacement, it was a good time to reorganize and reassess, he said.

Presently, about 2,800 people use the center each year, he said. About half of what Senior Citizens Services provides is the activities at the center, such as various card activities such as canasta and pinochle and activities such as Wii bowling. For a while, there even was a league set up where they would compete against other senior centers, Wittenberg said. The center also offers classes such as in conversational Spanish and has audio DVDs available for people to study French, Spanish and Italian. There is also a computer lab with 14 computers hooked up to high-speed Internet that is available for seniors to use for free and without time limits like in public libraries, he said. The center also currently offers numerous computer education classes for seniors.

“We also teach about iPhones, iPads, Androids, all to keep even the people who are 80 and 90 years old savvy on computers and technology,” Wittenberg said.

SCS also provides medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and transport chairs to seniors who need them.

The other areas that SCS covers is information and referral services.

“We spend a lot of time one-on-one with people on the phone or in person when they visit the center, giving them guidance on alternative housing for seniors,” Wittenberg said. “Alternative transportation when they give up driving. Helping them with consumer problems. Advising them on insurance and Medicare, and things like that.”

They also provide referral services and advice on finding nurse’s aides, companion care, free legal services, and even has a large reference database on handymen and trades people who seniors can hire and know they will be fair minded, honest and reliable. Also, if there have been activities that seniors are interested in but were not offered at the senior center, SCS has helped them find other locations that offer these activities. These are the types of services that SCS will continue to offer, even after the activity center closes. Additionally, it will continue to provide employment support for seniors.

“We help them get back in the workforce, and we have somebody who counsels them and helps them with their résumés and searching for jobs on the Internet and coming up with references for them,” Wittenberg said. “And that is a big service that has expanded considerably in the last five years as more seniors have discovered that they need to go back to work because their savings and social security are not adequately supporting them.”

Wittenberg has started telling the activity groups about the center closing, and so far everyone has been quite disappointed, he said.

“The ones I spoke with already are very shocked and disappointed, but we will make every effort to relocate them to other opportunities within the city or county where they can continue their activities,” Wittenberg said. “But they’re quite shocked by it because to them, we’ve been around forever.”

With operating costs significantly reduced once it moves into Prospect Towers, Wittenberg expects that at least $100,000 will be freed up to help other entities such as the residential facility itself.

Prospect Towers is a 17-story building built about 42 years ago as a HUD low-income housing project for seniors, Wittenberg said. SCS takes pride in the level of maintenance and preservation of the building, he said, and an older building takes a little extra investment. Therefore, it will be beneficial to have this influx of money each year to serve the residents even better.

SCS does not use any federal, state or local government money; it is all through private donations, Wittenberg said. However, when Prospect Towers was completed in 1972, though there were no direct government subsidies, the nonprofit was helped out by getting a mortgage of 1 percent from the government for the 40 years of the mortgage, so that enabled SCS to provide low rent to its tenants, Wittenberg said. Today, Prospect Towers rents out efficiency apartments for $450 a month and one-bedroom apartments for $572 a month, which both include basic cable and all utilities except for telephone service. There are 208 apartments, and residents are at least 62 years old unless they have a disability and then they can move in earlier. They have to be able to get around on their own, whether by walking, using a walker or a wheelchair, he said, and make within a certain monthly income range. All units are equipped with emergency devices so that residents can signal the front desk in a medical emergency, there is 24-hour security, and there are private kitchens so residents are responsible for cooking their own meals.

Wittenberg is glad that SCS is able to help provide this affordable housing for seniors because there is such a need for it.

“The need is so great within the Clearwater area that the typical housing authority project, which is the real extreme low-income where they charge rent based on the 30 percent of the income (poverty rate), typically has a six-month waiting list to get into it,” Wittenberg said. “It’s full. We don’t have that degree of time delay in getting someone placed. We usually have a couple of apartments at any one time. But the need is incredible.”

SCS constantly gets requests for seniors looking for affordable housing, and Wittenberg said it breaks his heart when they do not earn enough to be able to live in Prospect Towers.

When the senior center closes, the computer center will move over to Prospect Towers, said Sheila Stein, manager of Prospect Towers. She said that it will be nice for seniors both from the community and from the tower to be able to use and learn how to use the computers, as well as participate in some of the card games that will move over to the apartments as well. There is currently no activities director at the residence, so this will help fill that gap.

For further information about the center’s transition or for referral services, call 442-8174.
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