Seniors Clinging to San Francisco, Despite Challenges

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Rapid economic growth, which has attracted more residents and commuters, congesting streets, has changed, yet again, the nature of City life.  San Francisco’s homeless population remains stubbornly high, with a sense that erratic street behavior has become ubiquitous. Among the many demographics impacted by these vicissitudes are senior citizens, who struggle with age-related health and emotional concerns.

While retirees also cope with high living costs, the free meal program offered at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House lingers under-capacity, with roughly one-dozen attendees at each repast. “Attendance at the senior lunch has dwindled over the years due to people passing away or moving out of the City,” said Edward Hatter, the Nabe’s executive director. “Potrero Hill has lost most of its senior population, so it’s a question of reaching out to seniors in other neighborhoods and getting them here.”

According to niche.com, a website that compiles neighborhood statistics, the fraction of residents over the age of 65 in Potrero Hill is just seven percent, down from upwards of twice that proportion a decade ago.

According to Hatter, misinformation is another barrier to lunch attendance; some individuals don’t go because they think that the program is designed for low income people and don’t realize that anyone aged 60 or older can attend. Muni bus lines 10,19 and 48 transport luncheon goers to the Nabe.  Seniors can also use San Francisco Paratransit, a van service run by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that caters to those with disabilities or mobility impediments. However, Hatter explained that sometimes the elderly aren’t motivated to leave their homes.   

The senior lunch is run by Project Open Hand, a nonprofit organization that offers similar meal programs at about 14 other City locations, such as the Mission YMCA and Downtown Senior Center. The Nabe’s lunch is open from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Recent menu items included Herb Roasted Tilapia, Turkey Fiesta Stew and Tandoori Chicken Drumsticks. Seniors can also participate in bingo and Tai Chi classes tailored to their age group on weekdays.

Computer classes geared for seniors could be added to the Nabe’s programmatic lineup this summer. The bottom level of the organization’s facility had been used for activities oriented to individuals with disabilities, goings-on that ended earlier this year due to a decline in participants. If funding is secured from the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which Hatter hopes will occur this month, the empty space will be transformed into a maker’s space, equipped with computers and such items as a laser cutter. The area will be shared between seniors and youth, with pensioners able to hone their computer skills Monday through Thursday mornings. Instructors will be onsite to help participants improve their abilities to do such things as schedule doctor’s appointments and pay bills online.

Mission District resident, Tessie Racelis, has been volunteering for Project Open Hand at the Nabe’s senior lunch since she retired in 2013. She’s found there to be a dearth of senior-specific resources in Potrero Hill, views the Nabe’s offerings as extremely valuable, and hopes that the word will get out to those unaware of the programs.

“There are more seniors out there who could be benefitting from the lunch program,” Racelis said. “The lunches are good for them, they’re nutritious, low in sodium, free of MSG and are much better than food they might get elsewhere. Plus, they get the opportunity to socialize.”

Lunch goer Martin Lee, a 30-year Sunset resident, regularly makes the trek to the Nabe because he likes the people he’s met at there. Unlike most seniors he knows, Lee is tech-savvy, frequently on his smartphone or utilizing the Nabe’s free WiFi to check email and browse news stories on his iPad. According to Lee, few seniors take advantage of the complimentary internet access; he’s observed that the digital divide is pronounced among seniors, commenting that elderly who lack computer skills don’t always know how they can benefit from gaining the knowledge.

Reflecting on changing times, Lee said that the City has become increasingly crowded; Muni buses are sometimes unreliable during non-peak hours, when seniors often ride. He’s also concerned that San Francisco’s overall environment has become less healthy, with packed housing, congested streets, and discarded hypodermic needles and bodily wastes polluting the sidewalks, making it difficult for seniors to leave their homes and walk about safely. Despite the challenges Lee thinks the City has unique advantages over other places.

“In general San Francisco is very friendly,” said Lee. “When people get used to the City they find it difficult to move elsewhere. When people move here they feel that they are welcome and have access to many cultural opportunities. Diversity makes people feel free and that should be encouraged. Other places that are less diverse bring about a feeling of needing to conform. Here the friendliness also means there’s less distance between people and that’s something important for seniors since they’re not working anymore.”

Steep housing prices have become one of the biggest challenges for seniors living in the City. Andrew, a Potrero Hill resident since 1985, remembers a quiet neighborhood when he first moved in, offering both an urban and suburban feel. There was more open space between homes; renters could find apartments for as little as $500 a month compared to the $4,000 fees common today. Andrew owns his Arkansas Street home but doesn’t know many other golden agers who’ve remained in the neighborhood.

Andrew is troubled by the City’s high rents, graffiti and homelessness but said that of all the places he’s been, San Francisco still feels most like home. Growing up in Hong Kong, he said many people in his native country didn’t have high expectations about government assistance for the elderly so he takes an independent approach to his own future. However, he appreciates free Muni passes for seniors.

Dolores Maghari, site coordinator for the Nabe’s senior lunch, depends on a free Muni pass to do her job. She lives in the Excelsior and takes four buses to Potrero Hill, a difficulty she endures because she loves the place, participants and staff. According to Maghari, one of the greatest challenges facing seniors is affording high rents; she hopes that public transportation will become more reliable.

“Things have changed for seniors in the City,” said Crystal Booth, program coordinator at the San Francisco Senior Center. “The rents have skyrocketed and a lot of our folks have been here since the Dotcom boom so this is round two for them.”

About 100 seniors come for lunch and breakfast at the Downtown facility daily. According to Booth, many elders are struggling financially; though they have little income they pay high rents. Some fork over as much as $1,500 a month for single room occupancy units that’re reportedly infested with rats and cockroaches. Such units would’ve cost as little as $100 a week in the past; with the technology industry boom, Booth has seen many of them occupied by young tech workers. She attributes the displacement caused by economic growth to increased homelessness and crime. Pensioners have been or are fearful of becoming victimized, she said, which has led to some feeling uneasy about leaving their homes, contributing to a lack of exercise and social stimulation and greater isolation.