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

A handful of paid staff scattered themselves throughout the room, but it was up to the members to divide up tasks, such as cooking lunch, managing the front desk and picking up a fellow member from Lincoln Hospital after a medical procedure. Two people opted to work at the Wellness Corner, an onsite store that sells hygiene products and used clothes at a discount. Others volunteered to call members who hadn’t visited in a while.

Fountain House’s south Bronx outpost opened in 2013 in a smaller and less grandiose location compared to its flagship location in Midtown Manhattan, which houses enviable facilities such as a library, plant nursery and gym. But it serves the same purpose of connecting people to social services, employment and educational opportunities while fostering a strong sense of community — something members said is just as important to their mental health as therapy or medication.

With membership on the rise, Fountain House officials said the Bronx clubhouse had outgrown its current digs and was slated for a major expansion in the borough.

At a time when the discourse about how to address serious mental illness in New York has circled back to upping the number of hospital beds, court-mandated treatment and efforts to nudge homeless people out of the subway system, clubhouses represent a completely different approach.

Fountain House Bronx member Arvind Sooknanan points to spots on the world map in the clubhouse entryway. Pushpins are placed where other clubhouses exist. Sooknanan traveled to Norway with Fountain House Bronx in 2019 to lead a training on the clubhouse model, Feb. 22, 2022.

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

He said that clubhouses are particularly needed in his borough.

“Those of us in the Bronx have more exposure to mental health stressors and less access to mental health services," he said.

Although Fountain House doesn’t focus on the medical side of mental health care, an independent study has shown that the clubhouse helps high-need members cut back on costly emergency room visits and hospitalizations – a major issue in the Bronx.

As of 2019, the borough had among the highest psychiatric hospitalization rates of any county in the state. Many residents live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas, meaning they have too few mental health practitioners to serve the population.

“I met friends here that call me during the week and check in on me to make sure I'm okay, and I call them,” said Sylvia Davell Woods, 57, who said she has schizophrenia and depression.

Woods said she had been homeless before, but now lives in an apartment that a Fountain House member tracked down for her. The staff have also helped her get part-time jobs and manage public benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps. They’ve also taken her out to Applebee’s for her birthday.

Sylvia Davell Woods sometimes works at the Wellness Corner, Fountain House Bronx’s onsite store, which sells hygiene products and work-appropriate clothes to members at a steep discount.

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

That family is about to get a lot bigger.

Since opening with just eight members in 2013, Fountain House Bronx has expanded to serve about 200 people annually. Given their success and the acute need for mental health services in the area, the clubhouse is now aiming to bring in hundreds of new members – but first it needs more space.

“People are literally standing in hallways and sitting on desks for some of our programming,” said Michelle Rodriguez, the program director at Fountain House Bronx, which is currently located near 149th Street and 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’s also planning to construct a separate building with 40 units of affordable housing, including 24 that are set aside for people with serious mental illness. The nonprofit is still working to finance the project, which will cost $40 million.

When we get the new place, that’s going to be my sanctuary.
Sylvia Davell Woods

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

“That’s some of the more innovative programming.”

Fountain House’s expansion, which doesn't have an official completion date yet, comes as the nonprofit and the 14 other clubhouses across the city are doing more outreach to 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 about $14.6 million this fiscal year.

Lantern House, the one other clubhouse in the Bronx, which is operated by Goodwill, currently serves 159 people but has seen increased demand during the pandemic. It is working to grow membership by 30%.

But the clubhouse model is not as big of a priority for the state 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 said closed after regulators decided to shift funding to other types of community-based programming in the early 2000s.

Rodney Brown poses with fellow Fountain House Bronx member Sylvia Davell Woods as she eats lunch in the cafeteria. He says she was the first person he met at Fountain House when he joined four years ago, and they became good friends.

Rosenthal admitted that not all of the state-funded clubhouses were of the same caliber.

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

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

Dr. Ashwin Vasan, former CEO of Fountain House and new health commissioner for New York City, lamented to Gothamist in July that state funding for clubhouses has remained flat over the past two decades. While Fountain House brings in sizable private donations, that’s not necessarily the case for all of New York’s clubhouses.

The state Office of Mental Health did not respond to a request for comment on whether clubhouses are still a priority, and Gov. Kathy Hochul hasn’t mentioned them in her plan to improve mental health care.

Beyond appointing Vasan, neither has Mayor Eric Adams. Gothamist reached out to the city Health Department for comment on how Vasan plans to support clubhouses from within the administration, but did not receive a response.

In the meantime, members of Fountain House Bronx said they are looking forward to moving into their new facility. Woods said she’s particularly excited about the planned garden, which will be bigger than the one currently tucked in Fountain House Bronx’s narrow backyard.

“When we get the new place,” she said, “that’s going to be my sanctuary.”