Monday, 22 June 2009

Monday 15th June
Fountain House is a large building on West 47th Street, in the Hell's Kitchen district, West of Midtown. There are five stories. Most of the work spaces are open plan. The top floor is a glass-walled addition with a mezzanine. Parts of it appear like traditional offices, others are more like the receptions spaces of a Victorian town house.

I am shown around by Maria. She has been a member of the Clubhouse for six years. She's in the First Floor Unit. They deal with admissions and visitors among other things. She tells me there are something over three hundred active members at the moment. All members have diagnosis of either Schizophrenia, Bi-Polar Disorder or Depression. I see the Research Unit, where they are collecting data on attendance and outcomes, and where they also organise weekend activities like the film club and outings. I see the Clerical Unit where much of the administration is taken care of and the newsletters are produced, and the Kitchen Unit (an enormous catering facility in the basement with a dining area that can seat nearly 200). I see the Education Unit where photo cards on the wall show the twenty or thirty members who are, with the help of Fountain House, currently in full or part time education. I learn about the supported work system they run here, where placements are found in willing companies and cover is provided by staff and other members (if anyone has a bad day, someone will always be there to do their job - this is the clever insurance policy Fountain House have designed to make the placements realistic for employers). After giving me the tour she has to go back to the office and make some calls to members who haven't been seen in a while. I am offered a follow-up meeting with Alan Doyle, Director of Education and Training. He deals with the developing Clubhouses, helping people set them up and learn about the principles involved.

We talk a little bit about the brain injury Clubhouses I've seen in Virginia. Alan says he doesn't know much about them. He says I should have visited the one in Ontario. I ask why. He says it's the only one that's based on the authentic principles of the Clubhouse movement. 'Is authenticity important?' I ask. Alan pauses. He replies with a question: 'When you came in here what was it that struck you about the place?' It's a confident question. But perhaps he already has the sense that I understand something about what they are doing. I tell him I could imagine working at Fountain House. I say I believe you can tell a great deal about an organisation by its premises and by how things are arranged. I say I like the natural light and the views from the top floor, I like the open doors, I like the furniture and the freedom of movement. I like the patios with the flowers and plants. I like the paintings on the walls. I say the place has character. It seems like a place where people are making an effort, where people care about the building and the spaces inside. I say it's an environment where I imagine people can enjoy their work and feel healthy. I say if an organisation is trying to help people who are already distressed, it needs to be a place where everyone, including the staff, can feel relaxed and positive, where people will want to spend time.

Alan nods. 'It's not like that by accident,' he says.
But the Fountain House is familiar to me. I feel at home here. The atmosphere, the way people relate to one another, reminds me strongly of where I work. And I don't work in a Clubhouse.

As though to illustrate the point, a man walks into the office talking fast, a garbled stream I find hard to understand. He walks right through the open door and up to Alan who smiles somewhat warily, raising his hands behind his head. I get the impression this is a regular occurrence. But Alan is patient and treats the man with respect. He says 'Yes, I know. I'm busy just now.' I detect something beneath the interaction: that on some level Alan likes this man, despite his interruption, despite all the times this has happened before, despite the fact that what he is saying is right out of context, or that no matter what Alan says to him they will have the same conversation again next week or tomorrow or later today - despite all this, Alan has a connection to this strange man. He knows him and values him. The man has facial hair and his clothes seem ill-fitting. He doesn't seem to notice me until Alan points me out. 'This is Ben, he's come to visit from England.' The man turns. His speech slows to a halt and he takes me in. He shakes my hand and introduces himself. He seems like a decent guy. During our meeting we are interrupted twice more - once by a guy who ducks his head in, apparently merely to introduce himself: 'My name is Steve, who are you?' - and once by a phone call from someone determined to book a place at an event. As Alan puts the phone down I ask if he was the right person for that phone call. He laughs. 'I am as far as he's concerned. He knows I'll make it happen for him.'

Alan gives me the contact details of the Clubhouse in London (the mental health one). He tells me there used to be twenty in Britain, but that all but two have now folded. He doesn't know why. The number of Clubhouses globally hasn't grown in ten years. I ask him if there's something we need to be doing - all of us that work with people with cognitive, psychiatric or learning disabilities. All the people who have trouble advocating for themselves, lobbying. I ask him whether he thinks a time will come when we need to team up? He breaths out slowly and puts a hand to his brow. 'It's a good question. But you know, working here with these guys takes up all of my mind, all of my efforts.'

Down stairs I meet another man who tells me he is the president of the Clubhouse. I ask how many years he's been in the role. He says years. He goes around, he knows everyone, he makes sure things are OK. I ask him if he was elected. He laughs and says 'No! Self appointed!' Outside I bump into Steve again and we talk for a moment about England and music. He likes the Beatles. All except John Lennon. I ask what he has against John Lennon. He says he just prefers George Harrison and Ringo Star.

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