Friday, December 31, 2010

Program in DC that has been a sanctuary for people with mental illness for 35 years will close this week

From The Washington Post:

For 35 years, the Green Door Clubhouse has been a sanctuary where those with serious mental illness could be people, not patients, where they learned to meet the world and where they could always return when the world seemed unwilling to meet them.

On Dec. 31, it will be history, after the Green Door's leaders concluded that the clubhouse's mix of social, educational and employment programming could not survive cuts in city funding or, as the District urged, rely on Medicaid reimbursements.

Instead, the nonprofit group's $5 million mansion at 16th and Corcoran streets NW will be sold, with the proceeds going to support the array of other mental health services that the Green Door provides at a clinic in Petworth.

This week, though, the focus was on the clubhouse, as hundreds of people streamed into the elegant four-story structure to say goodbye to a beloved fixture.

They ate, they reminisced and they teared up. On a projection screen in the middle of the room, a slide show of memories played.

"Forever in our hearts, We will never forget you 1976-2010," read the epitaph over the final photo, a shot of the clubhouse.

"This is one place that gives you a sense of pride, a sense of dignity, a sense of self-respect," said Carlos Brooks, 64, who said his bipolar disorder was diagnosed when he was 46 and who has been coming to the clubhouse for eight years.

It is the sort of humanity that the Green Door's founders hoped to foster when they opened the facility more than three decades ago in the basement of a Unitarian church at 16th and Harvard streets NW.

The city's mental health system was in an upheaval. Attorneys for the mentally ill had sued the District, and a federal judge had ruled that the city needed to do more to treat people in the community. But there were few alternatives to St. Elizabeth's, the vast public psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington.

It was a problem roiling not only the District but also much of the country. One state after another was confronting demands to end the use of large institutions to house the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.

The Green Door and the notion of a clubhouse emerged as a way to create a safe space for such people. Members, as the clients were called, worked together with the staff to run the clubhouse and its programs.

The idea was pioneered in New York, and today about 150 clubhouses are spread nationwide. After bringing the clubhouse model to Washington, the Green Door soon outgrew its space and moved a mile or so south, to 16th and Corcoran. The mansion, which is more than 11,000 square feet and was built in 1886, has remained its home since then.

In the education unit, members learned skills that would help them in a literacy class or a GED program. In the communications unit, they published the Green Door's monthly newsletter, the Emerald News. In the employment unit, they explored job opportunities at such places as Target, Giant and CVS. And in the basement, they ran a little cafe.

"Many organizations, they just want to feed you and let you sleep all day," Brooks said. But not at the clubhouse, he said. The computer skills he learned helped him land a delivery job for a catering company, where he has been working for two years. "They help you become self-sufficient."

Harriet Walker, 35, only recently discovered the clubhouse, after being evicted from her home in New Jersey and moving in with a relative in the District. At the clubhouse, she met Annette Harvey, an employment counselor, who has helped her regain her pharmacy technician certification and find a job at a Giant.

It was more than the employment assistance, though, that appealed to her when she came through the green door earlier this year. "I liked the interaction between the staff and the members," said Walker, who asked that her diagnosis not be disclosed. "It was something I hadn't seen before."

The employment and educational programs will move to the Green Door's Petworth location. But for the 150 or so people who regularly visited the clubhouse, the socialization and the collaboration that are so much a part of the culture will no longer have a home, said Judith Johnson, who has run the Green Door for 25 years.

"There's no replacing the program, and there's nothing else like it in the community," she said as she walked among the many visitors this week.

Among them were more than a few former staff members, such as Don Dixon, who was a case manager at the clubhouse a decade ago and came back to say goodbye to a place he considered special.

"A lot of places remind you of what your illnesses or issues are," said Dixon, a director at the nonprofit So Others Might Eat. "Here they encourage you to leave your mental illness at the door."

The Green Door is not alone in facing hard choices. Many private mental health providers in the District are trying to navigate fast-shifting currents, said Shannon Hall, head of a group representing local providers.

The city is cutting social services budgets by millions of dollars. The District's Medicaid program, which funds much of the public mental health-care system with local and federal money, is in the early stages of significant changes, Hall said. And the far-reaching health-care legislation Congress passed this year promises many more changes.

"It's a very difficult time," Hall said.

The $900,000 needed to operate the clubhouse came from an annual contract with the city that isn't being renewed, Johnson said.

The D.C. Department of Mental Health said that funding the clubhouse through local and federal money was the responsible course of action and that the agency worked closely with the Green Door to make it work.

Ultimately, the Green Door concluded that it wouldn't work. "We couldn't bring in enough money," Johnson said.

In a statement, Phyllis Jones, the mental health agency's chief of staff, said the District is not giving up on a clubhouse. "We are disappointed with Green Door's decision and we are working to identify another community provider to operate a Clubhouse in the District."