The U.S. Postal Service announced that during the busy holidays it will take a break from a controversial plan to close post offices, but the issue is still stewing in some neighborhoods - especially among elderly residents.
Eleven post offices in Chicago are on the list of potential closures, nearly all on the city’s South and West Sides. Those are the communities where many say that older residents will bear the brunt of the hardship of having to travel farther to use a full-service postal facility.
Residents near those locations received letters over the summer notifying them of the proposal to close their local post office, and inviting comments. Dorothy Sumpter, a 73-year-old resident of the North Lawndale neighborhood, said as soon as she received the letter, she put the date of a public town hall meeting on the proposal on her calendar.
“People like me need the post office,” said Sumpter, “so that’s why I wanted to be in on it. I’m a citizen and I use every right that I possibly can.”
Sumpter uses the Otis Grant Collins Post Office, where revenue dropped $200,000 between fiscal years 2007 and 2010. Throughout the nation, post offices are seeing a decline in revenues and foot traffic, attributed to the shift to online bill-paying and correspondence. But Sumpter says she and many other elderly people like her aren’t part of the internet-using trend.
“I don’t feel comfortable using it,” she said. “I’m old-fashioned.”
Sumpter goes to the post office every week because she has a P.O. Box there, but also to buy stamps and mail her bills. She said she feels comfortable going there because it’s easy to access on foot and by bus, and she knows all the workers by name. If the Otis Grant Collins branch closes, the next closest post office would be in Cicero. “Which I don’t even know where the post office is in Cicero,” Sumpter laughed. “And I don’t really want to have to go over there just to go to a post office, because many times I can walk to the post office in less than 15 minutes.”
Sumpter said she fears that the elderly will become more isolated if they lose their neighborhood post offices, because many are less mobile to begin with, and sometimes walking to the post office is a crucial part of their social interaction and weekly exercise regime. Karen Schenck, Chicago District Manager/Postmaster, said many share Sumpter’s view.
“That was the largest concern. If you had to ask me what was the biggest concern of all the town hall meetings,” said Schenck, “was people were concerned about the elderly in their own community.”
The list of proposed closures came from USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., said Schenck.
“Nobody took into consideration any other fact except for how much revenue,” she explained, “and if there was another post office within two miles close to it that could service the community.”
Schenck says the district office is now looking at population data to see how many elderly live near the post offices that may close. She says that’ll help them make a final decision. Schenck says of the 11 offices on the shortlist, some will be spared.
But concern for the elderly may be loudest in Chicago’s Chinatown. Of the zip codes where offices may close, Chinatown’s is the one with the greatest portion of residents over age 65, with several senior housing high rises in the immediate vicinity of the post office. Chinatown’s elderly also say they have an unique need - a place where people are bilingual.
“The employees, they don’t speak Chinese,” said 60-year old Harry Wong.
Wong is like many elderly Chinese immigrants in Chicago who speak limited English. He uses the Chinatown post office because if there’s a language barrier, he can turn to other customers in the store for help translating. That’s the reason that many elderly Chinese who live in other places will often bypass a closer post office to go to Chinatown’s.
Chinatown organizers have gathered hundreds of handwritten letters from residents to protest the potential closure of their post office. USPS is still accepting those comments, and says no post offices will close before March.