ALTON — Francis Gonzales does not cook.
“I did the Meals on Wheels program so that I could be sure and get one good meal each day,” Gonzales, 79, said. “I really enjoyed getting a hot meal every day; now, I will get frozen meals, and they just taste different.”
Born and raised in Alton, the retiree who worked for decades in St. Louis before coming back home to Alton said he is more worried about how cuts to the delivery program will affect his neighbors.
Senior Services Plus, a nonprofit, United Way agency providing programs for seniors such as home care, transportation, medical monitoring and Meals on Wheels, has been stabbed with state cuts, resulting in loss of programs and reduction or elimination of five staff positions.
What it means for hundreds of area seniors such as Gonzales, who lives at Skyline Towers and walks with a cane, is a reduction in meal delivery services and lack of transportation to get groceries or go to the doctor … something that in some cases could become a matter of survival.
Last June, the agency was serving 600 meals a day. Today that total is down to 378.
“This really hurts people and I don’t see how some are going to manage,” Gonzales said.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a Democratic-controlled General Assembly still are at odds over the state’s budget. The impasse is stretching into the seventh month past the beginning of the fiscal year.
Last November, State Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, tagged along with SSP representatives to help deliver meals.
“I think it is important to show the governor and other members of the General Assembly the number of people that rely on programs such as Meals on Wheels,” Beiser said. “If the budget crisis is not resolved soon, these same people are going to be suffering. Instead of choosing sides, we should stand up for the most vulnerable people in our area and ensure that essential programs continue to be funded and are not held hostage over demands on items not even related to the state budget.”
Outside the Senior Services Plus building in Alton, a message on the marquee reads, “Start the conversation - #starvingseniorsil.”
Inside, Executive Director Jonathan Becker is just angry.
“This budget impasse is not good for the state, not good for the economy, and one of the main reasons why businesses do not want to come here and develop opportunities,” Becker said. “Our bond rating is down, and there is no certainty.
“This reduction in Meals on Wheels for seniors is, quite simply, criminal. We are putting the most vulnerable and medically frail seniors in our communities at risk, and no one seems to care.”
How the budget standoff affects Meals on Wheels
The impact of Illinois’ state budget impasse has begun to trickle down to those who already struggle to make ends meet. Low-income and at-risk seniors rely on Meals on Wheels for 33 percent of their daily nutrition. With the budget cuts, 40 percent fewer seniors will be receiving meals, and those that do will only receive food for four days, not five.
As late as this summer, five hot meals were delivered daily. Beginning Feb. 1, four frozen dinners will now be delivered in one trip per week to the 390 seniors still on the recipient list. Meanwhile, 130 seniors currently wait for news their name has been added.
The cost of a daily meal through the Meals on Wheels program is $8, with $3.92 funded by the state through Age Smart Community Resources. Recipients are asked to make a donation, with the average senior able to contribute just 69 cents.
SSP makes up the difference. But with $1.3 million owed by the state, those funds are getting harder and harder to create. Until the budget crisis is resolved, the state will only pay the Medicaid portion, or 40 percent of that $1.3 million … if those funds come through at all.
Becker said good nutrition is vital to keep seniors out of hospitals and nursing homes, arguing the average cost of a nursing home is $150 per day for seniors on Medicaid. Becker says logic just keeps the numbers from adding up.
“You have a program that saves the state a significant amount of money,” he said. “What is funny is that one year of Meals on Wheels is cheaper than one day in the hospital for a senior. To me, not only is this not cost-effective, but it is also not a humane way to treat people.”
Also on Feb. 1, transportation services will end after 43 years.
“Since we first opened, we were giving people rides to the doctor, employment opportunities, things like that,” Becker said. “Now, that is just gone.”
The Older Adult-funded transportation program, providing seniors with rides for necessary chores, will be eliminated completely. The fear is that most seniors who use transportation services do not have family or other help close by and therefore may become further isolated.
How SSP is fighting the cuts
Some Illinois agencies are resorting to closing their doors one day a week. Determined to be there for the community so reliant on his agency, Becker said SSP will remain open for services at its regular operating schedule.
“SSP will be here for a long time because we have alternative revenue streams in our sights to offset some of these costs,” he said. “We have a lot of different funding sources, and we have a good financial plan in place. Our senior community needs to know this is still where they can come for relationships and socialization.
“A community center like this is just too important to let go.”
A hydroponic greenhouse system for organic food production is in the works, with an additional 25 raised vegetable boxes behind the building. While not able to sustain the overwhelming food needs for area seniors, it will help, and will provide natural, home-grown alternatives to less healthy choices.
“Nutrition has a huge impact on people’s health,” Becker said. “When you cut meal services, all you are doing is driving medical bills up.”
Funding from other avenues still provides transportation for medical situations … at least for now.
Plans also call for an expansion of the Wellness Center.
“The Pathway to Wellness campaign will not only create new standards in the field of aging, the revenues generated, through an expanded Wellness Center, will allow us to continue to provide vital services as we brace for a 30 percent increase in people over age 55 in our communities,” Becker said. “That is (what) is so heartbreaking about the current financial crisis; it’s like the state of Illinois is sticking it to the very organizations trying to help those most vulnerable, aging seniors.
“Until somebody takes a stand to stop the madness, it’s only going to get worse for this population of people.”
Back at Skyline Towers, Gonzales considers himself fortunate to be in a senior community, but is worried about other seniors who live alone.
“I hear stories about people whose only connection with the outside world is that visit from Meals on Wheels,” he said. “What happens if they get sick and need help, and nobody comes to see them for days?”