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Seniors, disabled learn their rights at Astoria hearing

At a time when city budget cuts threaten to curtail services, a crowd of nearly 100 people voiced their concerns and learned about the programs available to them at an Astoria public forum for senior citizens and the disabled last week.

The session, sponsored by state Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), brought together representatives of government agencies and non-profit organizations in a single room to “really answer a lot of questions,” Gianaris said.

The forum was held Friday in the meeting hall of the Peter Dellamonica Senior Center on 23-56 Broadway, where about 80 senior citizens and people with disabilities gathered at round tables to fill out index cards with questions for the panel of eight speakers who lined the front of the room. In the background could be heard the constant clatter of poker chips striking two tables in an open mezzanine along the side of the room, where a group of men continued their game as the hearing went on below them.

“We hear that message loud and clear,” Gianaris told the crowd after fielding one person’s plea to preserve the senior centers. “We’ll do what we can to keep these centers open.”

Although no senior centers around Astoria face the threat of closure, Commissioner Edwin Mendez Santiago of the city Department for the Aging said his agency has been forced to absorb a $24 million reduction in its annual budget due to the $5 billion deficit faced by the city.

His priority, he said, is “to try and minimize as much as possible the direct effect of any budget reduction on our most frail and vulnerable population.”

To that end, he told the seniors that his agency is seeking out their feedback to determine which programs and services to cut.

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) made a brief appearance before returning to City Hall for the final stages of budget negotiations, where he was trying to ensure the cuts “don’t affect the people most vulnerable like our children and seniors,” he said.

Capt. David Barrere, the commanding officer of the 114th Precinct, outlined steps senior citizens could take to protect themselves from crime, such as inviting the precinct’s crime prevention officer to their homes to conduct a free security survey.

He also cautioned people about a typical ploy in which a con artist posing as a repairman knocks on the front door and distracts a resident while a second person slips through the house and steals possessions.

“If you’re unsure, don’t allow them into your home,” he said. “You can call the police and they’ll come help you out.”

Although a number of people criticized the city-run Access-A-Ride program for leaving passengers stranded and providing inconsistent service, director Howard Ende explained how the van system that provides door-to-door service to people with disabilities has expanded and improved since New York City Transit assumed control of it in 1993.

Access-a-Ride, which is operated by New York City Transit, now makes about 2 million annual trips compared to 300,000 a decade ago, he said.

Although drivers currently pick up passengers all across the city, he said they will soon be assigned to specific boroughs so they can better learn the terrain.

“Basically, it’s going to prevent bus operators from getting lost,” he said.

Nancy Miller, the director of Visions which provides services for the blind, said 11,000 of the city’s 42,000 blind senior citizens live in Queens.

She said the top concerns of Visions’ clients revolve around achieving independence despite their inability to see by receiving training at home, having reliable transportation, getting information in an accessible format and being able to help others.

“For blind seniors, knowing that they can give back and not just take is what’s so important to them,” Miller said, explaining that her organization’s clients also volunteer in its office.

Although the seniors mostly sat quietly, absorbing the information without offering much comment, afterwards they praised the forum.

“I think it’s very helpful,” said Adele Naser, 70, of Astoria. “I think a lot of people didn’t know about Access-a-Ride and a lot of programs that are available.”

Dan Aliberti, a volunteer in Gianaris’ office who organized the forum, said the event was designed to reach out to a rapidly growing population with a need for services.

“Most people hope to become senior citizens some day in their lives. At the same time, most people do not want to become disabled,” Aliberti said at the end of the event. “When these two things come together, you have a large population of disabled in the community, and you also have a large populations of seniors.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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