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Mobtown Beat

De-Centered

Longtime Fells Point Senior Center To Close

Christopher Myers
ELDER CARE: Members of the Joseph Center Advisory Committee, including (L-R) Ray Lubinski, Doris Sweeney, Lee Fisher, and Shirley Willingham, Wonder where seniors will go for services after the Fells Point center closes its doors this summer.

By Jill Yesko | Posted 3/9/2005

For nearly a quarter of a century, Lillian Janowicz has been coming five days a week to the Joseph SeniorLife Center in Fells Point, a place she calls her “home away from home.” An avid baker, the spry 83-year-old Belair-Edison resident has been baking cakes and cookies to raise money for the senior center that she and close to 200 other seniors from around Baltimore City have been coming to for programs such as computer classes, bingo socials, and line-dancing lessons, along with assistance with Medicare and Medicaid, tax preparation, and other social services.

But come June 30, Janowicz and scores of other seniors will have to find other places to go for discount lunches, medical screenings, and bus trips. On Feb. 16, the board of Catholic Charities, which runs the Joseph SeniorLife Center and owns the building in which it is located, announced in the Joseph’s newsletter that the center would close at the end of June due to “the declining population of seniors in our service area.” The announcement further cited an increase in property values in Southeast Baltimore, budget shortfalls, and a drop in the number of seniors participating in the programs offered at the center.

“The building is frequently underutilized,” says Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, director of communications for Catholic Charities. “Many of the seniors [who use the Joseph SeniorLife Center] don’t live in the neighborhood. We hope that people will find other options.”

Catholic Charities is currently working on a “transition plan” that would help Joseph SeniorLife Center patrons find services at other senior centers and churches, Burch-DeLuca says. She notes that two city-run senior centers—the Hatton Center in Canton and the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown—offer many of the same services as the Joseph, including Eating Together, a federally funded program that provides lunches to needy seniors.

But seniors like 67-year-old Lee Fischer, of nearby South Ann Street, who serves on the advisory council of the Joseph, question whether “finding other options” isn’t a euphemism for letting needy seniors fall through the cracks. He and other members of the advisory board worry that many seniors won’t go to other centers for the services they need, a situation that could jeopardize their well-being.

The Joseph also offers a Senior Center Plus program that provides adult day-care services for seniors who need supervision, a service that will be discontinued when the center closes.

“There are people who really rely on the center,” Fischer says. “They might not have any family members to take care of them. They might not have anywhere else to go.”

The Joseph SeniorLife Center was established in 1982 to serve low-income residents in Fells Point at a time when the lower Broadway area was home to scores of seniors of Polish and Eastern European descent—a demographic that people on both sides of the issue agree is changing.

With the burgeoning Hispanic population in Fells Point, some critics wonder if shuttering the center isn’t a means for the Hispanic Apostolate, which is also run by Catholic Charities and occupies the third floor of the building, to take over sole operation of the facility—a charge that Catholic Charities’ Burch-DeLuca refutes. She also states that Catholic Charities has yet to decide whether or not to move the Hispanic Apostolate to St. Patrick’s Parish on Broadway, a move that could open the door for the sale of the building.

“The Hispanic Apostolate needs to continue to expand,” Burch-DeLuca says. “Their population is growing.”

The Joseph is one of only two senior centers in Baltimore that is accredited by the National Institute of Senior Centers (Cherry Hill SeniorLife Center is the other). The institute offers an extensive, government-sponsored accreditation process, according to John P. Stewart, executive director of the Baltimore City Commission on Aging and Retirement Education. The commission, which contributes $92,000 a year to help fund the Joseph SeniorLife Center (Catholic Charities declined to state its budget for the Joseph), offered Catholic Charities the option of taking over the center, Stewart says. “They said it was not part of their business plan,” he adds.

While Stewart says he is assisting Catholic Charities with its transition plan in order to ensure that “no senior in urban America is left behind,” he questions the Census figures cited by Catholic Charities for the closing of the center.

“We stemmed the loss of population in Baltimore City,” Stewart says, noting that the city is currently home to 112,000 seniors, 17 percent of the city’s population—a figure that’s expected to rise as baby boomers enter the senior ranks. Stewart projects that by 2030 the city will see a 35 percent jump in the number of seniors. “We need to create a legacy for our seniors in Baltimore City,” he says.

For Lillian Janowicz, part of that legacy should include the Joseph SeniorLife Center. “It’s 24 years in April,” she says, noting that she and others at the center were already gearing up for a gala 25th-anniversary celebration. “I guess you just keep hoping for a miracle,” she says. “I pray to St. Jude.”

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