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No Country for Old Folks 

Gov. Jindal's line-item veto leaves the future of a local seniors' center in doubt.

Over the course of 102 years, Beatrice Delery has fought her share of battles. This Seventh Ward centenarian is sitting in a wheelchair in the temporary home of Harmony House, a senior day-care program on Esplanade Avenue in Tremé. Delery sits at one of the large, round tables that fill a medium-size room that looks like a school community room circa the 1960s, with wood-paneled walls and a linoleum-tiled floor. The tables are full of senior citizens putting together photo albums, working on puzzles and visiting with friends. The center's staff desks line the perimeter of the crowded room.

Delery has just found out that Gov. Bobby Jindal has cut funding for Harmony House from this year's state budget. Tremé Community Education Program, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) that runs Harmony House, had requested $325,000 in state monies so the NGO could continue operating the senior center and providing an after-school program for local students. A Jindal administration official says that the program doesn't have a statewide or regional impact, criteria the governor required for all NGOs.

In just six weeks, the decades-old senior program is scheduled to move into a new location in order to better serve the more than 120 enrolled seniors that regularly use the center. Ironically, the construction project is being paid for with state funds.

When Jindal released the final version of this year's state operating budget, he had made 258 line-item vetoes, more than doubling the total number of line-item vetoes made by the two previous governors. For Delery, who has 52 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren, the record-breaking number of line-item vetoes doesn't mean anything. She only cares about how it will affect Harmony House.

"That's wrong," Delery says. "You can look at this place. We celebrate Christmas and all the holidays, and if they didn't have it, then there won't be anything."

When Norman Smith, executive director for Tremé Community Education Program, returned to New Orleans in 1976 after serving in the Army in Vietnam, he became alarmed. The population in his Seventh Ward neighborhood was aging and there were few social services to assist them. The Sisters of the Holy Family ran the Lafon Nursing Home, but that was only for inpatient residents. For those older folks who didn't require full-time assistance, there was nothing.

"The community was aging and left at home to die," Smith recalls. "No one was reaching out to help. No one was reaching out to poor black people."

Later that year, Harmony House was opened in the old St. Ann rectory on Ursulines Street. State Rep. Louis Charbonnet III secured state funding for the project. Smith says that the program was "purely recreational," giving those who had suffered under segregation a sense of acceptance and purpose. Delery, who still remembers being forced to sit in the back pew of her own church, was one of Harmony House's first seniors.

By the time Hurricane Katrina struck, Harmony House had grown too large for the St. Ann rectory and was operating in a building on St. Bernard Avenue. The variety of services provided by the Tremé organization also had increased. Staff members would pick up clients and bring them to the center, where they could participate in a variety of activities, including computer training, and seniors would receive a hot meal five days a week. Additionally, the organization hired teachers to run after-school tutoring programs for children in five local public schools.

For many years, the organization relied on line-item financing from the state budget for its operating funds. Even though line-item funds have been labeled "slush funds," legislators' "pet projects," and are now referred to as NGOs, in the case of the Tremé Community Education Program, the money enabled the group to offer a senior program and after-school programs in an impoverished city and a poor neighborhood. As a senior center, the organization receives some state funding through the New Orleans Council on Aging, but that allocation is meager.

"The Office of Elderly Affairs [the state office that funds councils on aging] has been underfunded for the past 20 years when it comes to senior center funds," says Howard Rodgers, executive director for the council.

Rodgers says it's long been accepted practice for communities needing help for the elderly to turn to their state legislators. "If they want a new center, their state representative will find the money for that center," he says.

With their senior program expanding with new clients, the Tremé group looked to Edwin Murray, their state senator. Prior to the levee failures, Murray arranged for a $1.4 million capital outlay project to give Seventh Ward seniors a new center, which was delayed due to the shortage of construction contractors and laborers following the storm.

The project is finally nearing completion, and the new center will be housed in a long-dormant two-story fire station on Barracks Street. Unlike Harmony House's present situation — the organization rents a room at the Musicians' Union Hall, which it uses for the senior program and an office — the new location will house a program area, arts and crafts space, offices, kitchen, a library and a computer room. Smith says the center has come a long way since the building on St. Bernard flooded during the storm, destroying all of their equipment and furniture.

"What if you came back to work and found only four walls and nothing else?" Smith asks. "Do you go home, or do you rebuild?"

Knowing there were seniors with few resources still living in the area, the organization decided to rebuild, working out of a senior center in Central City until it found the room at the Musicians' Hall. The majority of its clients are transported to the temporary location, receive a meal and participate in a variety of programs, which includes day trips to museums and the public library. With little space, it's often standing-room-only in the hall. Smith expects the new center to be completed within the next six weeks and says he hopes to offer after-school tutoring and homework assistance for the upcoming school year at three local public schools.

But will be there be any funds to operate it?

Michael DiResto, spokesperson for Gov. Jindal's Division of Administration (DOA), says the Tremé organization's funding request was refused because Jindal didn't feel it satisfied a statewide or regional impact requirement. DiResto adds that assistance to the elderly is a statewide priority, but that the governor feels that these groups should not be funded through line items.

"This was an effort by the governor, and he stressed this at the press conference, not to say that these organizations and activities are not worthy, but the reform effort is more about how they're funded," DiResto says.

Murray doesn't agree with the governor's rationale. He feels the administration rushed into making the line-item vetoes without giving programs careful consideration. On the Saturday before the governor's vetoes were announced, Murray says he tried to point out to DOA Commissioner Angele Davis that Harmony House had operated in the Seventh Ward for more than 30 years and explained what it meant to the seniors living in the area.

"That's what I told Commissioner Davis," Murray reports. "I told her all of those things: that we opened a brand new building, and now we have no money to operate it."

Murray later found out that the governor wouldn't veto NGOs that had contracts with local councils on aging. After the veto announcement, Murray spoke with Davis again and informed her that the Tremé group had for a number of years subcontracted with the New Orleans Council on Aging. According to Murray, Davis told him she checked with the Governor's Office of Elderly Affairs and was told there was no contract.

James Bulot, executive director of the Office of Elderly Affairs, says that his office scrutinized the proposed line-item vetoes for senior centers. Bulot says this was a difficult task because he had been on the job only a month and wasn't familiar with all of the state senior centers.

"I couldn't find Harmony House," Bulot says. "I spoke for a week or so to the governor's office about the various senior centers — the ones we were able to identify." (It is listed as "Tremé Community Education Program Inc.," and its NGO funding information is available online.)

No one from the state office called the New Orleans Council on Aging. If they had, Rodgers says, he would have confirmed the Tremé contract. (When Bulot was informed there was a contract, he said Tremé has only had the contract for the past year. Rodgers contradicts this, saying the Tremé group has subcontracted with the council for years.)

Despite Bulot's efforts to preserve the line-item funds for state senior centers, he says that 24 councils on aging were refused funds through the line-item vetoes. "We're not funding parish councils on aging and senior centers adequately," he says, but adds he is working on increasing funding next year. Bulot also says there are never "adequate" funds for seniors and that the bulk of the money — 70 percent — is supposed to come through community support.

Rodgers says the 70 percent came from another source.

"Nope, that 70 percent comes from the NGO line item in the state budget," Rodgers says. "This was the first year that we called them NGOs. Last year, it was slush funds. Well, the slush fund is feeding old people."

Smith says his organization is trying to become more self-sufficient. It is difficult, considering the Seventh Ward was already poor before the storm, so local sources of money aren't readily available. The group is renovating four senior citizens' apartments in the area, which will help combat the shortage of affordable senior housing and subsidize the organization's programs. He also is applying to various foundations for funding, but he says that the governor's veto has been a cruel blow on both a financial and an emotional level. "As bad if not worse than Katrina," Smith says. "In Katrina, we lost everything."

Delery's daughter Patricia Heisser, who accompanies her mother to Harmony House several days a week, says this latest bad news is par for the course for her and her mother.

"We're fighting everything now," she says, rolling her eyes.

She explains her mother's recent struggles. The Archdiocese of New Orleans shuttered her parish, Church of the Epiphany, because of its dwindling parishioner population. Delery currently is living in a FEMA trailer on Heisser's property, but the trailer eventually will be taken away because of a city and FEMA deadline for removing trailers. Delery is waiting to move back into her renovated home in the Seventh Ward, which flooded after the levee failures, but she is waiting on the state to provide her with someone who can visit her a few times a week to assist her with activities like cleaning, cooking and bathing.

Delery isn't asking for much — just a little help around her home and someone to take her to Harmony House. Once there, she has a support system of friends, who, just like her, are struggling to maintain a little independence and stay out of a nursing home.

"It would be the last place I'd want to go," Delery says. "When you have somewhere to go, it's better than a nursing home."

click to enlarge On most days, Harmony House is filled with seniors who come to have a hot meal, visit with friends, build puzzles, work on scrapbooks or other projects.
  • On most days, Harmony House is filled with seniors who come to have a hot meal, visit with friends, build puzzles, work on scrapbooks or other projects.
click to enlarge Beatrice Delery is among the 120 seniors enrolled in the Treme Community Education Program that runs Harmony House. The centenarian, who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina, says coming to the community center and visiting with friends keeps her out of the nursing home.
  • Beatrice Delery is among the 120 seniors enrolled in the Treme Community Education Program that runs Harmony House. The centenarian, who lost her home in Hurricane Katrina, says coming to the community center and visiting with friends keeps her out of the nursing home.
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