A van pulls up at a side door of a large concrete structure and 10 petite, mostly gray- and white-haired women, each with her hands full, emerge from behind its double doors and make their way inside. For the next 50 minutes they gather in the community room chatting over the television and with each other, as they divvy up plastic grocery bags and take turns sharing a shopping cart to transfer their purchases upstairs.
This is the typical Wednesday afternoon routine at Gray Manor Apartments, a subsidized, independent-living senior facility located at 1600 N. Eighth St. “It’s like one big family unit,” says Christian Hobson, the manor’s service coordinator.
The eight-story, 130-unit building, owned by Bright Hope Non-Profit Corp. is the vision of Dr. William H. Gray Sr., a pastor in the community during the 1940s who wanted to create an apartment complex of reasonably priced units for low to moderate-income residents. Although Gray died before his dream materialized, the building, which is celebrating its 30th, anniversary stands in his honor.
“A lot of people here are from the neighborhood,” Hobson says. “They were familiar with it just from living around here. Some residents have lived here 20, 25 years or more.”
True to Gray’s vision, the manor was designed to accommodate the housing needs of 130 older adults on a fixed income. As a government-supported subsidized housing program, Gray Manor has age and income requirements. To be eligible for placement, individuals must be at least 62 years of age or have a disability, whether physical or mental. Rent is based on a sliding scale determined by a resident’s income. “Without the government assistance, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to stay here,” say Theresa Clark, Gray Manor’s resident council president.
The need for such a facility today is clear. The 2009 Profile of Older Americans, compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging, found that nationally the median income of older persons in 2008 was $25,503 for males and $14,559 for females. The income of Philadelphia’s older population is very different from the nation’s average. According to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), almost 26 percent of Philadelphia’s population over 65 has an income that falls below the federal poverty level. The federal poverty guideline for a single person is $10, 830. Considering that and the increasing number of “baby boomers” approaching retirement could help explain why waiting lists for subsidized housing are often several years long. According to Gray Manor staff, the wait for placement there fluctuates and is anywhere from three months to one year.
What makes Gray Manor unique is its structure. Many other subsidized-housing options in Philadelphia offer strictly a safe and secure place for individuals to live. Gray Manor combines that main stabilizing factor for seniors – affordable housing – with a number of social activities designed to maintain healthy and active lifestyles. Daily interaction with peers and professional staff members help create a positive atmosphere that enhances residents’ overall quality of life, says Robert Ragsdale, Gray Manor’s property manager. It also enables them to be self-sufficient for as long as possible, he adds.
“Some have grandchildren, some have relatives, but many do not. Their relatives are gone and their children may have passed on or moved away. For many of them their neighbors are really who they get to share with, it’s who they confide in,” says Ragsdale.
For Hobson, creating a “bridge between what’s going on outside and bringing it in to the Gray Manor community” is a priority. He coordinates presentations from agencies and organization about health insurance, banking services, life insurance and other programs for which residents may qualify. As a convenience to residents, Hobson says a “dollar-store person” also comes in on a monthly basis and gives them access to a number of goods sold at similar retail outlets. An individual who sells fresh produce, including fruits and vegetables, also stops by monthly to prevent residents from making numerous trips out in the neighborhood.
“It’s something they can plan for, something they can look forward to each month,” Hobson says.
In the future, Hobson says he would like to think more creatively when planning activities for the residents. This past December, the residents took part in a Christmas ball, something that they never before experienced at Gray Manor. Hobson organized the event, which included a DJ, catered food, dancing and dressing up for the night. Now Hobson is in the process of planning a trip to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J., and an outing to a dinner theater performance. But residents’ personal mobility is a top consideration.
“Going into it, you know that not everyone will be able to go. But you have to try and accommodate as many people as possible,” he says. “If they want it and can afford it, we try to make it available to them.”
Clark, who is in her third term as president of resident council, works closely with Hobson to advocate on behalf of the residents. The council holds a meeting every third Wednesday of the month to discuss issues as well as plan events. At the most recent meeting on April 21, Clark presented her ideas for upcoming activities on Gray Manor’s premises, including a fashion show and a strawberry festival.
“They held a fashion show in the community room back when it first opened. I’d like to recreate that,” she says.
Clark also plans to recognize the residents who have been there the longest, some since opening day, with an honorary plaque and a souvenir journal in the coming year.
“When residents move into Gray Manor, they’re not looking to move anywhere else ever again,” Hobson says. “There are a lot of programs and activities here that you won’t find in other senior housing facilities.”
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