Seniors in Mahoning County make difficult choices every day and the advocates supporting them say the results of the budget battle at the Statehouse will demonstrate whether those seniors are a priority in Ohio.
“People should not have to choose between food, medication, housing and just bare minimum things that should be available to citizens of this country,” said Cirell Howard, Community Services Manager at Mahoning Youngstown Community Action Partnership (MYCAP).
The Ohio Urban Community Action Network (OUCAN), its members like MYCAP, and other advocates across the state have called the budget proposed by Ohio’s Senate cruel. They are urging lawmakers to pass a budget that puts Ohioans first by restoring line items proposed by Gov. Mike DeWine and the House version of the budget.
“There are real people hurting,” said OUCAN CEO Yvonne Cherell, who co-hosted the Rally for Ohio’s Future held last week at the Statehouse. “For Ohio to be the heart of it all, we urge the Senate to revisit the proposed budget and restore critical programs and funding for services that support a thriving community for everyone.”
MYCAP serves all of Mahoning County with many programs including several for seniors. Food has become a huge need in the area, according to Senior Services Manager Crystal Robinson.
“People are hurting, period, in our community,” Robinson said. “But for seniors, in just six months I have given out over $4,000 worth of food vouchers.”
During the pandemic, MYCAP received an influx of funding used to supply food to this same population, Robinson said. Now, that funding is gone but the need is greater than ever – especially since emergency allotments ended in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“We are still grappling, looking for ways to support them,” she said. “They went from receiving the SNAP benefits during COVID for the last couple of years to now they’re back to $20 or $12 and food is sky high right now. Now is when they really need the assistance.”
Food insecurity is a top concern across the state. According to the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, three out of every four SNAP recipients uses up their benefits within the first two weeks of the month. Nearly 35% of SNAP households have at least one member over 60 and more than 1 in 4 has at least one member with diabetes.
One of the items stripped out of the budget by the Senate was a state-funded minimum SNAP benefit for seniors. The amount of funding for Ohio food banks was cut by $15 million between the House and Senate versions of the budget. Funding was also cut for Senior Community Services.
“My biggest worry is food resources for our seniors,” said Kadeja Johnson, Certified Community Health Worker with Oak Street Health in Youngstown “Every day, I get a referral for someone who needs help with food and sending a senior to stand in line at a food bank to me is appalling.”
Seniors on food stamps now receive approximately $16 a month.
“They don’t give you enough to buy the things you need,” said Vinnie Kelley, a member of MYCAP’s Seniors Out for Action (S.O.F.A.) group.
April Young runs a food banks for Rust City Church in Niles, serving approximately 250 families with 5,000 to 9,000 pounds of food every week. In addition to food, Young goes through a lot of diapers and not just for babies.
“We have seniors who cannot afford hygiene products,” she said. “They’re coming through and getting baby diapers because they can’t afford the incontinence products they need.”
Young said seniors will take almost anything and cut it to the size they need to cope with bladder leaks or incontinence. Pads used in hospitals on beds and chairs (also known as chucks) are used most often but donated infrequently. Diapers meant for area children are also frequently modified.
“It affects the moms who need diapers,” Young said. “But then also I’m not about to turn away a senior who needs those products as well. We’ve been trying to find that balance.”
Even if they can find food, seniors who can no longer take care of the homes they have lived in for decades face rising rent and high prices for life-saving medications.
“All the rental prices are skyrocketing but their Social Security isn’t,” Johnson said. “You tell somebody they can move into this income-based property but they have to have a $1,000 deposit and their Social Security check is only $900. How’s that going to work? What are seniors supposed to do?”
Many members of the S.O.F.A. group live in high rise apartments in the Youngstown area. They sold their homes either because they could no longer physically maintain them or because they could no longer afford them.
Jeannie Kuzma still maintains her own home, although it has become more of a challenge.
“I have a problem getting somebody to shovel my snow, mow my lawn or do small jobs that I know I can’t do,” she said. “I don’t want to move out of my house. I like my home. I like my neighbors. I want to stay there because I feel I am still independent. I can do things!”
The Senate version of the budget stripped out funding for Healthy Aging Grants which would enable local partners to help older adults age in place.
“The program would offer increased independence through access to resources and services, provide economic benefits by reducing reliance on costly publicly funded care, and support those who provide care to older Ohioans,” said AARP State Director Holly Holtzen.
The need for expensive medications creates yet another barrier for Ohio seniors.
“I’m a diabetic also and I have to eat healthy,” Kelley said. “I have a choice to either eat healthy or stay alive.”
Johnson works with Medicare, Medicaid and drug manufacturers to try to help clients afford their medications. While Medicare is open to all, she often sees people just over income for Medicaid who still need help.
Meanwhile, most drug manufacturers won’t provide discounts or assistance to Medicare recipients. Navigating the complex web of insurance and other benefits is daunting. When help is provided, it’s sometimes only honored at certain stores. Then transportation to distant locations becomes part of the lack-of-access equation.
“So they forego other things,” Johnson said. “I can’t buy groceries because I have to get this medication. It just turns into a huge barrier. It’s always a lot of extra stress that a senior doesn’t necessarily need to have.”
Howard says these problems aren’t new and a solution is long overdue as is the need to act urgently.
“We are in the post-pandemic craze where everything is higher, inflation is out of control, rent is out of control and it is directly affecting our most indigent population,” she said. “We expect our seniors to be able to handle all their business and coordinate all these programs because we drop a little bit of money here and there. We need to fix this, Ohio, immediately.”
Young and Johnson both find the situation strips seniors of their dignity.
“It breaks my heart to see the struggle that they’re going through and how dependent they are on the food and the diapers that we’re able to give out,” Young said.
Johnson added: “It’s devastating to me to have to tell a senior there’s no resource I can use to help you today.”
Cherell called the Senate’s budget “draconian” and believes it would create severe hardships.
“In these uncertain times, cuts to crucial human services will make the next two years in Ohio insufferable for many who are already in need and struggling to make ends meet,” she said, urging residents to contact their state lawmakers.
“It’s not too late to protect Ohioans and enact a budget that treats them with dignity and provides the resources they need to prosper in their everyday lives.”