Clubhouse for New Yorkers with severe mental illness plans $40 million expansion in Bronx

About 20 people crammed into Fountain House Bronx one recent morning, filling the social club’s main hall with a mixture of English and Spanish. The members, who all must have a mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to join, discussed what was on the agenda for the day.

A handful of paid staff scattered around the room, but it was up to the members to divide up the tasks, such as preparing lunch, managing reception and picking up a colleague from Lincoln Hospital after a medical procedure. Two people chose to work at Wellness Corner, an on-site store that sells discounted hygiene products and used clothing. Others volunteered to call out members who hadn’t been in a while.

The Fountain House outpost in the South Bronx opened in 2013 in a smaller, less grand location than its flagship location in Midtown Manhattan, home to enviable facilities such as a library, nursery, and sports Hall. But it serves the same purpose of connecting people to social services, employment and educational opportunities while fostering a strong sense of community – which members said is just as important for their health. mental health than therapy or medication.

With the increase in membership, Fountain House officials said the Bronx clubhouse had outgrown its current digs and there were plans for a major expansion in the borough.

At a time when the talk of how to treat serious mental illness in New York is tantamount to increasing hospital beds, court-mandated treatments and efforts to push the homeless off the subway, clubs represent a completely different approach.

“It creates a space in which to be loved and worthy, a space in which to build relationships,” said U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres, who represents the South Bronx and has spoken openly about his own struggles with depression.

He says pavilions are especially needed in his borough.

“Those of us in the Bronx are at greater risk of mental health stressors and have less access to mental health services,” he said.

Although Fountain House does not focus on the medical side of mental health care, an independent study showed that the clubhouse helps members in need reduce costly emergency room visits and hospitalizations – a major problem in the Bronx.

In 2019, the borough is one of the highest psychiatric hospitalization rates from any county in the state. Many residents live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas, meaning they have too few mental health professionals to serve the population.

“I’ve had friends here who call me during the week and check in on me, and I call them,” said Sylvia Davell Woods, 57, who said she has schizophrenia and depression.

Woods said she was once homeless, but now lives in an apartment that a member of Fountain House has tracked down for her. Staff also helped her find part-time jobs and manage public benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps. They also took her to Applebee’s for her birthday.

“My biological family, I’m not that close to them,” Woods said. “I consider myself to be closer to the Fountain House family.”

This family is about to grow.

Since opening with just eight members in 2013, Fountain House Bronx has grown to serve approximately 200 people a year. Given their success and the acute need for mental health services in the area, the club is now aiming to attract hundreds of new members – but it needs more space first.

“People are literally standing in hallways and sitting at desks for some of our programs,” said Michelle Rodriguez, program director at Fountain House Bronx, which is currently located near 149th Street and the Grand Concourse.

Fountain House has purchased a new property in Melrose, where it plans to build a 17,000 square foot clubhouse that can accommodate up to 1,000 members. It also provides for the construction of a separate building with 40 affordable housing units, 24 of which are reserved for people with serious mental illness. The association is still working to fund the project, which will cost $40 million.

The new facility, designed with input from clubhouse members, would include a rooftop garden as well as its own indoor horticulture facility and gym. It will also include an audiovisual room with equipment members could use to produce their own TV show or podcast, Rodriguez said.

“It’s one of the most innovative programs.”

The expansion of Fountain House, which does not yet have an official completion date, comes as the nonprofit and the city’s 14 other clubs raise awareness among those who could benefit from the model. . Before leaving office, former Mayor Bill de Blasio allocated $4 million to increase clubhouse membership by at least 3,000 New Yorkers, bringing total city and state funding for clubhouses in the five boroughs to approximately $14.6 million this fiscal year.

Lantern House, the Bronx’s only other clubhouse, which is operated by Goodwill, currently serves 159 people, but has seen increased demand during the pandemic. It strives to increase its membership by 30%.

But the clubhouse model isn’t as high a priority for the state’s Office of Mental Health as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Harvey Rosenthal, CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. He ran a clubhouse in Albany that he declared closed after regulators decided to shift funding to other types of community programs in the early 2000s.

Rosenthal admitted that not all state-funded clubs are of the same caliber.

“Some of them turned into ‘sit, rock and smoke’ programs and you can’t defend them,” Rosenthal said, referring to facilities where members didn’t do much during the daytime.

But he said officials should have sought to bring all pavilions up to Fountain House standards, which pioneered the model, rather than stray from it.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan, former CEO of Fountain House and New York’s new health commissioner, lamented to Gothamist in July that public funding for clubs has remained flat for the past two decades. Although Fountain House brings in significant private donations, this is not necessarily the case for all New York clubs.

The state Office of Mental Health did not respond to a request for comment on whether clubs are still a priority, and Governor Kathy Hochul did not mention them in her plan to improve care. of mental health.

Beyond Vasan’s appointment, neither mayor Eric Adams. Gothamist reached out to the city’s health department for comment on how Vasan plans to support clubs within the administration, but did not receive a response.

In the meantime, Fountain House Bronx members said they can’t wait to move into their new facility. Woods said she was particularly excited about the planned garden, which will be larger than the one currently tucked away in Fountain House Bronx’s cramped backyard.

“When we have the new place,” she said, “it will be my sanctuary.”

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