Of Many Things

Lack of affordable housing has affected all low-income people, but its effects have been especially harsh for the elderly and vulnerable. New York City provides a case in point. Many of the single-room occupancy hotels that dotted the Manhattan landscape through the 1960’s have disappeared, converted into high-priced condominiums. I was reminded of this painful loss on a Saturday in January while visiting an octogenarian resident at the Stratford Arms on West 70th Streetthe only S.R.O. still remaining in that section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As a hotel, it never had any pretensions to luxury; the rooms are tiny, and the toilets and showers are located down bleak and narrow hallways.

My visit with Rose (not her real name) took me back 30 years, to my days as a theology student. At that time, through an arrangement with Roosevelt Hospital, the Stratford offered an array of now-vanished services to its residents, many of them men and women released from mental hospitals at a time when deinstitutionalization was in full swing. Two social workers and a nurse staffed the Stratford and helped them to lead relatively stable lives. A lunch program, recreational activities and nondenominational religious services were among the other amenities provided.

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As part of our training, a group of Jesuit seminarians like myself took turns as night volunteers. That was our official title, but once the residents learned that we were studying to be priests, they referred to ussomewhat exoticallyas the night seminarians. A bedroom on the ground floor was set aside for us, and whoever was on duty would sit there (or lie dozing on the rumpled bed) waiting for calls. Picking up the phone at one or two a.m., I might hear a voice saying, Is this the night seminarian? Can you come up to my room? Then, boarding the rickety elevator, I would try to be a good listener to the troubled or lonely person who had called.

Rose is one of the few residents left from those days. With profits clearly in mind, over the past few years the management pressed many to move elsewhere. A number of them went to nursing homes. But Rose, who for 20 years worked at the lobby switchboard for a token $25 a week, refuses to go, or even to move from her dark, narrow little room to another so that hers can be repainted. They say I can come back to this room afterwards, but I’m afraid they won’t let me, she saidand she may well be right. Severe arthritis keeps her mostly confined to her bed, but a city-provided home health aide takes care of her immediate needs, and another elderly resident does occasional shopping for her. During the visit, in fact, he stopped by to receive an order for some drugstore items. Rose manages quite well.

But as to remaining at the Stratford, the end is inevitably approaching for all the old-timers. The management no longer offers rooms to low-income elderly people. Instead, it is filling them with students from a local music school who can afford rents triple or quadruple what Rose and the others can pay. On my way out, I passed several of them entering and leaving the dreary lobby. Their young faces stood in vivid contrast to those of the old people. But even their tenancy may be short-lived. The surrounding area has become so upscale that, if gutted, the building could well become yet another condominium for high-salaried New Yorkers. The signs in the neighborhood are unmistakable. What used to be a diner on the corner called Mike’s, where many Stratford residents were once able to buy inexpensive meals, is now a chic flower shop, and across the street from it is a Banana Republic clothing store.

The visit left me with the realization that we are still far from learning to put the dignity due all elderly peopleespecially the most vulnerableabove the search for ever-greater profits.

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