Nonprofit Serving Seniors is scrambling to provide more packaged meals for low-income seniors countywide, including at its downtown Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, pictured here, following the forced cancellations of its daily group meals. In the process, it’s also struggled to ensure some deliveries at its Potiker Family Senior Residence in East Village. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Government officials and another nonprofit have stepped in to address chaos at nonprofit Serving Seniors’ downtown housing complex after food deliveries never materialized and security gaps left some residents panicking.

Nonprofit Serving Seniors is now scrambling to bolster food service and support for residents after scrutiny from county officials and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s office. This week, some residents of the 200-unit apartment complex in East Village were startled when a monthly food bank delivery they expected didn’t happen. Dozens of others still weren’t signed up to receive twice-daily meal service more than a week after public health directives tied to the coronavirus forced Serving Seniors to cancel group meals served in the Potiker dining room.

State and local officials have encouraged seniors to isolate at home. Two residents told Voice of San Diego they were concerned that security gaps were allowing people who don’t live in the building to enter and visit residents despite guidance that seniors should avoid outside interactions.

“People are sliding in behind somebody that’s already come in. We have not had the food bank deliver our food this month,” 69-year-old resident Jeffrey C. West said on Wednesday afternoon. “There are a lot of people here that depend on that.”

At least two hospitalizations and two deaths – all of which Serving Seniors said the county has not flagged as being tied to coronavirus – at the Potiker Family Senior Residence in recent days have also put some residents on edge.

Rosemary Perman, 63, spoke to VOSD on Wednesday before she called 911 about what she believed might be coronavirus symptoms. She said the two neighbors who passed away had lived on her floor.

Perman said Serving Seniors staff and building manager Hyder Property Management Professionals haven’t updated residents on whether those residents had coronavirus.

“We don’t know what their illness is, what they died from and if it’s already in this building,” said Perman.

Perman later confirmed she was on her way to the hospital.

Serving Seniors is now rushing to make improvements after calls from Gonzalez’s office and county officials. Serving Seniors CEO Paul Downey said he is confident that the nonprofit can retool and rise to the challenge in both with its countywide and Potiker operations.

“Everybody is doing the best we can,” Downey said. “We are trying to provide as much support as humanely possible to folks.”

The San Diego Tenants Union, which organizes renters facing displacement and other challenges, had helped draw officials’ attention to Serving Seniors’ downtown complex. Gonzalez told VOSD that her office had communicated with Serving Seniors throughout Wednesday and planned to distribute food resource lists to residents. Her office also called the San Diego Food Bank to discuss the issue.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who is married to Gonzalez, promised the Tenants Union on social media that the county was on top of the situation.

“I value and appreciate Serving Seniors and the challenges all our meal providers face, but if they can’t meet the needs of these residents we will have to find someone who can help them meet the current need,” said County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who is married to Gonzalez, later told VOSD.

On Thursday morning, county spokesman Craig Sturak and Downey said that Jewish Family Service had been brought on to assist. Arrangements had also been made for the food bank to deliver to residents early next week.

Serving Seniors has for years held a county contract to serve meals to groups of seniors at facilities including Potiker and to provide home deliveries to a limited number of frail seniors. It’s been asked to dramatically increase delivery services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a short time, Downey said the nonprofit has transitioned from serving about 1,400 daily meals at senior centers and 800 delivered to seniors’ homes to 5,000 packaged meals daily. He expects to double that number in coming weeks.

“I’m not sure any other provider could have done what we have done, but we’re not done,” Downey said. “We’re committed to adding more meals.”

Still, Downey acknowledged the nonprofit was struggling to ramp up those services.

As of Wednesday night, he said there were more than 1,000 seniors countywide who had requested meals despite the fact that Serving Seniors has already hit its current capacity of 5,000 daily meals.

“We are stretched,” Downey said. “We are hoping to add capacity in the next couple of weeks.”

Downey said his nonprofit had delivered 192 breakfast and lunches to 92 Potiker residents on Wednesday alone.

The nonprofit said late Wednesday that Serving Seniors staff were going door to door at Potiker to ask 104 seniors who had not signed up for twice-daily food deliveries if they would like to receive them. Those who had signed up for the nonprofit’s  group meals in the facility’s dining room previously had automatically received the deliveries. Others had been previously offered deliveries, Downey said, but had not responded to Serving Seniors’ offers.

Jewish Family Service is set to help provide food to seniors who had not already signed up for deliveries for the next few days.

Downey said he was also planning to ask property manager Hyder Property Management Professionals to consult legal counsel to see if state and federal fair housing laws would allow the facility to further limit visitors.

He also hoped to take steps to try to increase the presence of support staff at the building who had started working from home following coronavirus directives and said he would be seeking protective masks to make that more feasible.

“I need to keep my staff safe and we need to keep the seniors safe,” Downey said. “The plan is we will have staff on site at least some of the day.”

Kyle Beach of Hyder Property Management Professionals declined to comment.

Sturak said county officials believe Serving Seniors can eventually adjust to the changing demands for meal delivery or pickup tied to the county’s recent directives – and that they would find a way to make it work if they couldn’t. The county does not have oversight over other operations at the Potiker facility.

“We are confident that Serving Seniors has a plan to address the challenges they have experienced, or we are prepared to augment the meal service with another organization to ensure that problems are addressed,” Sturak wrote in an email to VOSD sent before Jewish Family Service had agreed to assist.

San Diego Food Bank CEO Jim Floros said deliveries there had halted after Potiker property manager Hyder informed the San Diego Food Bank it could no longer host monthly food deliveries at Serving Seniors’ housing complexes downtown and in City Heights. That had meant that many homebound seniors had been without deliveries they relied on.

Downey said he and Serving Seniors staff had been unaware that Hyder had made that call.

“There was zero reason for them to have canceled the delivery,” Downey said. “They were wrong to do that.”

Vanessa Moore, the food bank’s vice president of operations, said her team now plans to handle those deliveries early next week after speaking with Serving Seniors and Gonzalez’s office.

“The seniors at these two facilities are not going to be without their food boxes for the month of March,” Moore said.

Perman, who returned from the hospital late Wednesday after receiving a coronavirus test, told VOSD she was happy to find a note on her door informing residents that the food bank would be delivering to residents on Monday.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.