Eric Garcetti: Keep an eye out for seniors

The small turnout at the Los Angeles polls for the mayoral election on May 21 is cited as evidence that most Angelenos don’t care whether City Hall is open, closed or simply blown away. But two days after the election, I visited a Jewish Family Service (JFS) senior center on Fairfax Avenue and got a different picture. 

As I watched women and men enjoy a cold chicken and salad lunch, witnessed them attending a class and saw their sparkling exercise room, I understood how city government, which helps finance the center, is a vital part of these people’s lives. It was clear to me how much the success or failure of Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti will mean to them.

The center I visited — the JFS Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center — is one of 16 such city-funded facilities in Los Angeles. They provide meals, either delivered to the home of someone in need or at 100 dining centers; help for battered old people; counseling and other assistance to the aging and diminishing band of Holocaust survivors; transportation; and some health care, including advice and screening for ailments. These services are financed with increasingly limited funds that come from Washington, Sacramento and L.A. City Hall, and are administered by city departments. Washington sequestration and Sacramento and L.A. budget cuts have diminished the money. That gives the city administrators, headed by the mayor, a difficult job in allocating the funds.

I had asked Nancy Volpert, director of public policy for Jewish Family Service, to put me in contact with people for a column on the impact of the city election on the Jewish community. Jewish Family Service has been on my Jewish Journal column beat for several years, especially after the Great Recession made large numbers of unexpectedly unemployed Jews of varied ages and economic statuses dependent on its services. Volpert suggested I visit the JFS Freda Mohr center, check out its services and talk to Paul Castro, the chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service, who happened to be touring the facility the day I went.

Seniors, Castro told me, “are overlooked in terms of poverty.” This is surprisingly true in the Jewish community, despite its traditions of community help and the perception of affluence — too often false — that clings to it.

“A lot of them don’t have family,” he said. “They don’t want to become institutionalized; staying home is very important to them.” Among the very poor, he said, are Holocaust victims who have outlived their families and friends.

“I think what the new mayor will do is make the safety net a priority on his agenda,” Castro said. “He needs an agenda that addresses this. Poverty is not acceptable.”

The JFS Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center does much more than address poverty. It offers a full day of challenging and interesting activities to men and women whose talents and energy are often overlooked by a society preoccupied by youth — or the appearance of youth. The center gives seniors a chance to blossom.

When Jewish Family Service was appealing for funds at the L.A. City Council, its leaders brought along center regular Louise Lelah. “They were cutting expenses for senior day care,” she told me. With some pride, Lelah said, “I gave my bit about these centers. If they are closed and people are stuck at home, it will cost the government more money.” That would be for additional medical and mental health care, the result of isolation and neglect.

Garcetti, then a city councilman, talked to her afterward. “He’s a down-to-earth man,” she said. “I was really surprised. He said, ‘If you need anything, this is my card.’ ” 

So, she voted for Garcetti, as did senior center regular George “the Engineer” Epstein. That’s the name on the card he gave me, which also identifies him as an author, lecturer and player. Player of poker, to be precise, and a teacher of the game, running several poker classes a year. He invited me to join one, but I explained I had no head for cards.

Epstein, an MIT graduate, was an aerospace engineer for many years, working on major projects for The Aerospace Corp. and other firms. Drawing on his experience devising materials to protect people, buildings and missiles from projectiles, he figured out how to fill potholes in a way that would last longer.

Epstein contacted the office of City Controller Wendy Greuel, Garcetti’s opponent in the mayoral election. He said he talked to her aides a couple of times, but nobody got back to him. “A real leader makes sure people working for her are responsive,” he said. With that, he began campaigning for Garcetti at the Mohr center and other senior groups he attends.

Places like the JFS Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center and its regulars didn’t occupy much time in a campaign focused on the middle class. The big topics were bad traffic, potholes, quality of life and other matters that cropped up in polls and focus groups. Garcetti offered a vision of Los Angeles resembling the trendier parts of his Hollywood district — clubs, restaurants and galleries, along with new high-tech business to be populated, I assume, by Angelenos as stylish as he is. These were among the constituencies that elected him.

But also on his side were the seniors who need the city-funded social services network, who need the intellectual and social stimulation, nutrition and transportation provided by their centers. Louise Lelah and George Epstein and others — frequent and dedicated voters — will be keeping their eyes on the new mayor. If I were Garcetti, I wouldn’t disappoint them.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).