Small Mental Health Centers in NYC Are Being Replaced by Bigger Ones

Small mental health centers in New York City are closing down to make way for larger, less personal centers. This change is supported by top city officials, but some experts are worried.

For the past 20 years, mentally ill people in New York have used up to 16 small centers called “clubhouses.” These clubhouses offer community support, art therapy, and sometimes help with finding jobs.

Starting in July, nine of these clubhouses will lose their funding because the city wants to consolidate services into 13 larger clubhouses by the fall.

“I, like everybody else, question the move to larger clubhouses,” said Joel Corcoran, executive director at Clubhouse International, the agency that accredits these centers. “There’s no evidence that bigger clubhouses are better.”

The city is limiting access to $30 million in funding to centers that can serve 300 or more people daily.

The Health Department estimates that around 5,000 mentally ill New Yorkers use these clubhouses every day. The new larger centers aim to serve an additional 3,750 people.

Corcoran is also concerned about the city’s fast timeline to implement the new plan.

Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is working with current members who will lose their clubhouses.

A source from the department said they will help members with transportation and other needs during the transition.

Lawrence Fowler, executive director of Rainbow Clubhouse, which serves 150 members and did not get a new contract, said some members cannot easily switch to larger centers due to their conditions.

“From a government perspective, there may be this notion that bigger is better,” Fowler said. “But it feels like they’re removing the community aspect of the clubhouse.”

Some advocates are concerned that Dr. Vasan is relying too much on his experience at Fountain House, the largest clubhouse provider in the city, where he worked as CEO from 2019 to 2022.

At a City Council hearing in March, Vasan denied having anything to do with the new funding proposal, but many still blame him for focusing on large clubhouses.

“It’s a conflict of interest,” said Dice Cooper, director of Lifelinks clubhouse in Queens, one of the smaller centers that did not get its contract renewed. “Who benefits from that? Fountain House.”

Several people who worked with Vasan said he never embraced the clubhouse model and was not involved with the members.

Vasan said the Covid pandemic limited his ability to be hands-on at Fountain House.

Jonathan Glass, a member at Fountain House for 24 years, said the center has become less community-oriented since Vasan’s tenure.

“It’s very clinical and not the same clubhouse I experienced for 24 years,” Glass said.

Vasan said the changes are meant to improve the system and ensure everyone has access to this model.

“It’s not about big or small. It’s about capacity and resources to provide the services that a clubhouse needs,” Vasan said.

Vasan said clubhouses with more resources will be able to collect better data to improve the model.

While the city focuses on data collection, Cooper worries about the members who will have no place to go after the nine clubhouses lose their funding.

“If these services are taken away, it will be a disaster. More homeless people in subways and neighborhoods, and more people going back to hospitals,” Cooper said.

Ruben Fernandez, a 61-year-old former marine, started going to Lifelinks three years ago after suffering heart failure. He is worried about losing the support that helped him recover.

“The clubhouse is the glue holding a lot of people together,” Fernandez said. “If they close the clubhouse, a lot of people will be lost.”

The Department of Health said they are working closely with the clubhouse providers to develop seamless transition plans for current members.

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