Tucson B’nai B’rith properties safe havens for seniors

B’nai B’rith Covenant House residents display care packages made by children during the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Super Extraordinary Sunday on Jan. 25 . (Back row, L-R): Solomon Steklov, Iosif Beskin, Gregoriy Tselnik; (front row): Sima Biznichuk, Tsilya Lipkina (Courtesy Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona)
Liz Kanter Groskind at one of several herb gardens at the Gerd & Inge Strauss Manor on Pantano, designed so seniors can tend them without bending. (Sarah Chen)
Liz Kanter Groskind at one of several herb gardens at the Gerd & Inge Strauss Manor on Pantano, designed so seniors can tend them without bending. (Sarah Chen)

Many Tucsonans are surprised to learn that the Jewish community sponsors not one but two nationally recognized independent housing communities for low and very low income seniors: B’nai B’rith Covenant House of Tucson and the Gerd & Inge Strauss Manor on Pantano. Both properties were the vision and work of longtime Tucsonan Gerd Strauss, who died in 2009.

Holocaust survivors Gerd and Inge Strauss, childhood sweethearts from Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1947 and relocated to Tucson in 1986. Strauss brought both properties to fruition in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and B’nai B’rith International, the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized housing for the elderly in the United States. After building the 119-unit Covenant House in 1995, he went on to establish the 80-unit Strauss on Pantano facility that bears his name, which opened in 2006. Residents spend 30 percent of their income on rent; the rest is subsidized by HUD. Going into his 90s, Strauss was planning a third property in Sahuarita, which never materialized.

Mark Olshan, Ph.D., associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International and director of its Center for Senior Services, fondly remembers Strauss’ initial involvement in senior housing with a property in Silver Spring, Md., before moving to Tucson. “Besides the two properties in Tucson, he attempted to get one going in Phoenix, too,” Olshan recalls.

Tucson was lucky to benefit from the timing of Strauss’ vision and energy. “Section 202 program funding [HUD capital advances and operational subsidies] doesn’t exist anymore. It is difficult to recreate the types of programs our communities enjoy,” Olshan laments. B’nai B’rith continues to support the Tucson properties by providing technical and professional training to their supervisory boards and management and employment company, Biltmore Properties.

Janel Doughten, associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, loves to highlight our Tucson properties. “We’ve hosted our national senior housing conference three times in Tucson to showcase best practices at the two properties,” she says. “The two properties are very special and truly reflect Tucson sensibilities in their architecture and design.”

Local architect Larry Meeks designed Strauss Manor as a Mediterranean style complex in conjunction with local designer Amy Sandler-Stuchen, whose emphasis on charming and upscale common areas accomplished a beautiful and high-end design on a limited budget. The configuration and appearance of both properties’ lobbies are intended to give residents the feeling of walking into a welcoming living room, a place they would like to host guests or visit family.

Clearly, staff and management still strive to achieve Strauss’ vision of “high caliber, high quality socially inclusive places” in all aspects of facility design and management. Each property has a volunteer board of directors that oversees Biltmore Properties and runs its own 501c(3) nonprofit entity, which fundraises specifically for the residents’ amenities and enhancements not supported by HUD. The boards make special efforts to plan holiday and birthday celebrations and potlucks.

Michael Levy, past president of the board at Covenant House, touts its wellness center as a prime example of the board’s success. “We listened to our residents and as a result we increased our fundraising efforts, applied and received a City of Tucson grant and obtained gently used equipment from Canyon Ranch when they upgraded. Now we have a wellness center with senior-appropriate equipment in a bright, welcoming atmosphere and opportunities to train and take classes with a personal trainer. The same could be said of the library, of the computer center. We listen and provide the best we can.” Troy Pearson, the wellness center director, shares Levy’s enthusiasm. “People need [the exercise], they want it, and they have huge changes,” he says. One active senior resident has succeeded in losing more than 30 pounds. The center offers chair yoga, circuit classes, horseshoes and dancercise.

Covenant House resident Carolyne Vogel feels gratitude and relief for the Covenant House. “For years, I worked all the time and didn’t have any close neighbors,” she says. “Now I have two really good friends here. At Covenant House, it’s very relaxing. I feel safe here.” A four-year resident, she feels so secure that her basic needs are met, she’s liberated to focus on her hobbies.

Liz Kanter Groskind, president of the Strauss Manor board, echoes the sentiments of her counterparts at Covenant House. “We get handwritten thank you notes from the residents all the time,” says Groskind. “They truly appreciate all the extras. We simply believe that those who have the least should live somewhere dignified, beautiful and safe. We’re not going to let you merely subsist.”

Food security is a persistent threat to the low and very low income seniors, many of whom qualify for monthly food boxes from the Community Food Bank. One critical activity of the boards and volunteers is to “stretch” the food boxes for the residents by incorporating donated fresh produce and creatively designing meal options that are both appropriate for seniors and easy to prepare.

Wish lists for each community include personal hygiene items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo and senior disposable underwear, such as Depends. Grocery items, including low-sodium soups, pantry staples and even prepared protein shakes such as Boost and Ensure, are always high in demand.

Although both facilities house residents from diverse backgrounds, the numerous Jewish residents, including several Holocaust survivors, appreciate the Jewish touches that the boards provide, from menorot in the spacious and elegantly decorated lobbies, to Jewish library materials, to brisket and latkes during Chanukah and more.

High demand extends to the housing market for low income seniors. Strauss Manor and Covenant House both have extensive waitlists. Before Strauss’ passing in 2009, two or three more B’nai B’rith collaborative properties were envisioned. “Before it took a special soul like Gerd to create a team, have a vision and coordinate the resources. Now that’s not enough because of the federal funding crunch,” explains Groskind.

“When you qualify for our residences, you’re living on such meager income, these individuals are truly vulnerable,” says Luz Gallego, longtime resident service coordinator of Strauss Manor. “Some of our seniors [who come to us] are homeless or are living in a family’s spare room and have no furniture, not even beds.”

“For our residents living on less than $400 per month, their daily decisions are quite literally ‘do I eat today or do I refill my prescription medication?’” Groskind emphasizes. “We are entirely committed to their wellbeing, to their longevity and to them as a person. We’re not merely giving you a room in a building, we’re going to care for you as a cherished community member.”

For more information on the Covenant House or Strauss Manor, visit covenanthouseoftucson.org or straussmanor.org for opportunities to volunteer or donate.

Sarah Chen is a freelance writer living in northwest Tucson with her husband, son and daughter. She also serves as associate director of the Northwest Division of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.