Earlier this summer, Mayor Eric Adams visited Fountain House to meet with pioneers of the “clubhouse” model for addressing serious mental illness. The meeting was behind closed doors, but the strategy isn’t—roughly 200 programs around the country are based on the concept.
Founded in the 1940s, Fountain House is a social club for New Yorkers diagnosed with a severe mental illness (SMI) to address unmet needs of loneliness and to be connected with broader resources. Members come and go through the converted Hell’s Kitchen townhome voluntarily. They can put together a newsletter in the clubhouse’s built-in newsroom or cultivate herbs in an outdoor greenhouse. And they’re finding work—employment and training director Ian Campbell says a main reason people apply to Fountain House is to find a job.
“Someone’s desire to work even as they’re very sick, is a healthy part of them and we try to engage and relate and connect to that,” said Campbell. “We believe that work is rehabilitative and that it is going to drive wellness for people. When people come to us, oftentimes they have very sporadic, insignificant work histories on their resumes.”
Members are often hired by local businesses partnering with the clubhouse. Training is taken care of by Fountain House through in-house job coaches. A new member is rotated in every six months. Campbell calls it transitional employment. Around 15% of people diagnosed with severe mental illness hold jobs. The number jumps to 30% for the folks in Fountain House. In Soho, there’s even a brick-and-mortar Fountain House + Body store which employs members and sells sustainable home goods.
But over the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, Fountain House lost a majority of its partnerships. Campbell says many of the jobs were entry-level and tied to people coming into the office—some cut roles involved cleaning bathrooms, stocking kitchenettes and sorting mailrooms. He estimates the number of partners fell from 72 to roughly 12 during the pandemic. The number is rising back today, with 36 partners currently.
One success story belongs to member Josh Molin. He originally joined Fountain House in 2018, and was often hospitalized due to his mental health. The organization connected with employers ranging from Meals on Wheels to Uniqlo. Through his work, Molin developed professional skills and a disdain for retail. Today, he works at SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, a job he found on his own over Indeed.
“I don’t come in as much [to Fountain House] because I’ve been working,” said Molin. “I love SUMMIT, just the joy it brings me [and] because I meet people from all over and it’s just a perfect fit for each other.”
“I think that this place is great. There’s a lot of good people. And I’ve grown too, I’ve come a long way…I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”
Molin says he never misses work—he doesn’t even come late. But prospective employers shouldn’t worry about absenteeism, says Campbell. When Fountain House members can’t show up to partnered jobs, clubhouse employees will step in to pinch hit. No one is exempt, not even supervisors like Campbell.
“It’s everyone from the people who are in the administration, through middle management through direct service workers—it’s part of working here in the clubhouse,” he said. “We all do it.”
He recalls once hopping into a Westchester County-bound minivan to cover member shifts at an edible dog food kitchen in White Plains. Campbell remembers seeing the chef personally taste-testing his creations before they were packaged. But did he try any of the edible dog food himself?
“I didn’t,” said Campbell, laughing.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w