Testimony: Increasing Immigrant Seniors’ Access to City Services

Testimony by Helen Drook, Supervising Attorney, Before the Committee on Aging and the Committee on Immigration; Serving A Diverse Aging Population: Improving Immigrant Seniors’ Access to New York City’s Senior Services

November 17, 2014

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Committees on Aging and Immigration about the needs of New York City’s diverse aging population. I commend the Council for holding this hearing and appreciate all the work you are already doing to increase immigrant seniors’ access to City services. My name is Helen Drook, and I am a Supervising Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, veterans, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illnesses, low-wage workers, members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, and others in need of free legal services.

Last year, we handled 42,000 cases for New York residents, over half of whom were immigrants, and more than a quarter of whom were people over age 60. Due to the increasing lack of affordable housing, changes in public health care policies, high poverty rates, and the growing number of frail and disabled seniors living alone, seniors need access to City services more than ever to allow them to age safely in their homes and communities. This is especially true for immigrant seniors, who often face even greater barriers, such as undocumented status and a lack of English proficiency.  At NYLAG, we work with immigrant seniors on a daily basis who would benefit from an increase in City assistance and services tailored to their unique needs.  Based on our experience, we have several suggestions to improve the City’s ability to reach this vulnerable population.

Perhaps the greatest overarching problem is the lack of language appropriate services for immigrant seniors. According to Census data, two thirds of the City’s 463,000 immigrant seniors have limited English proficiency, while nearly 200,000 live in linguistically isolated households. Without access to translators or interpreters, the result can be a failure of seniors to access the public services and benefits to which they are entitled – leading to hunger, poor health, homelessness, isolation, and depression. While we applaud City agencies for providing printed materials in the six most common languages, we believe there is an even more critical need for increased spoken language capacity at City agencies, senior centers and help lines. We propose expanding the City’s capacity to provide language appropriate services through a program modeled after NYLAG’s own Language Access Volunteer (LAV) Program. Under this program, pre-screened multilingual volunteers sign up to provide interpretation on behalf of NYLAG clients at specific dates and times, which are then cataloged in a shared calendar system. NYLAG staff members in turn schedule appointments for their low-English proficient clients during appropriate time slots and are able to access free on-demand interpretation services. In a similar City program, immigrant seniors could have the ability to sign up for appointments with volunteer interpreters either on the phone or in person when they interact with City agencies. These volunteers would be language-tested and trained on the issues about which they would be providing translation to ensure ease of communication. Because City agencies often literally deal with life-or-death issues, it is vital that immigrant seniors and City representatives are able to communicate without confusion. Expanded language capacity would allow the City reach many more immigrant seniors in need and offer assistance before their situations become emergencies.

Increased language appropriate outreach to immigrant enclaves could also help older immigrants learn about and obtain the public benefits to which they are entitled. The Recession forced many seniors living on fixed incomes to dip into their meager assets in order to meet basic living expenses, resulting in a decrease in their long-term financial stability. Immigrant seniors, in particular, are often unaware of their eligibility for public benefits, such as healthcare and food stamps. A USDA-sponsored study found that over half of eligible non-participant households in New York City believed they were ineligible for SNAP benefits, and almost a quarter of those who are eligible do not receive benefits. The problem is exacerbated for immigrants without legal status, who are likely to be unaware that they are eligible for some benefits even though they are undocumented. Regardless of immigration status, targeted outreach to immigrant seniors about their eligibility for these programs would allow more of them to age in peace, knowing that their food is secure and their medical bills can be paid. City agencies, including HRA, should make sure that this information is posted in multiple languages at all senior centers and across other media channels that cater to elderly immigrants.

Safe and secure housing is an issue that affects all seniors. Rent in New York City remains one of the most expensive basic costs for low-income people, and current data suggests that 54% of renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing. Elderly New Yorkers are particularly likely to fall behind in their rent and face eviction due to factors such as illness, dementia and fixed incomes. Landlords are also more likely to take advantage of their elderly tenants due to these vulnerabilities. The situation is even worse for seniors who are not English proficient, as they may be unable to comprehend landlord correspondence and eviction notices or understand the legal procedures at a hearing. We believe that HRA and HPD should make an increased effort to reach out to those immigrant seniors who are being sued in housing court to ensure that they know their rights and are prepared to represent themselves, if necessary. Because approximately 90% of tenants are currently unrepresented, it is imperative that this information be distributed to them in their native languages before they get to housing court on the day of their hearings. The City should also take steps to ensure that immigrant seniors are aware of their rights when it comes to SCRIE benefits and affordable housing.

Increased outreach is also needed to educate and protect immigrants from elder abuse and neglect, a growing problem. Nationwide each year, 10% of seniors experience psychological, physical, or financial abuse or neglect by a family member or caregiver. Many cases are never reported, as victims are unable or afraid to report instances of abuse. As with other areas, this problem is exacerbated for the immigrant population. Many undocumented seniors are unwilling to report abuse to City or State agencies, as they are afraid that it will raise a red flag with immigration authorities and lead to removal proceedings. Other immigrant seniors are unable to report abuse to a governmental entity because they cannot communicate in English or do not know how to contact the proper authorities. We believe that DFTA and other agencies could play an important role in ensuring that all seniors are aware of their rights to report abuse, regardless of immigration status or language capacity.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further and look forward to working together to ensure that immigrant seniors are able to access the City services they need to stabilize their lives. Again, we commend all those who have already worked to address these important issues. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,
Helen Drook, Esq., Supervising Attorney