A peer support center for mentally ill people in Manchester is closing its doors this week.
Granite Pathways Clubhouse opened five years ago. Members help to manage the day-to-day operations and offer support to one another. They also get help finding work or going back to school.
But New Hampshire behavioral health officials say because the program doesn’t meet the state’s definition of a peer support agency, it doesn’t qualify for funding.
Clubhouse organizers say that meant having to shut down.
A family atmosphere
It’s 1 in the afternoon and time for the mid-day meeting.
Members gather in the lounge, where the Quote of the Day reads, “Never give up. Keep trying. You will get through.”
Gigi Behrens stands in front of a giant whiteboard; behind her is the list of the afternoon tasks that need to be filled, everything from running the snack bar to feeding the fish.
“OK, we need a receptionist from 1 to 2,” says Behrens, who’s running the meeting in this space in the back of Brookside Congregational Church.
She’s also been a member here at Granite Pathways for nearly three years.
“I was very depressed. I was in – I couldn’t get out of bed. Couldn’t get dressed, didn’t want to do anything. If I had not had this place, I probably would have been in a hospital. That’s how bad it was.
She says this place gives her that reason to get out of bed in the morning.
“And be with people who understood what I was going through.”
Granite Pathways opened in 2010, and as co-founder Pamela Brown, explains, there are aspects that make it unique; there are no support groups or therapists here, for example.
“This is a program where the members and the staff work side by side. We have only two staff. Typically, on an average day, there’s between 16 and 20 members who come in and volunteer their time to help run the organization.”
But this isn’t an average day.
There’s only handful of members around; Brown says attendance has plummeted since the organization announced it would close at the end of the year.
Tina Frechette is still here.
She’s been coming since September.
“I’ve been living with bi-polar for almost 10 years. It helps me to be able to talk about it with other people because other people do have my disability. It’s not easy. It’s a struggle each and every day to live with bi-polar.”
Frechette and others, like Gigi Behrens, meet each day in a small break room for lunch, where the walls are covered with artwork created by members.
“We all just gather around and eat and talk. It’s a family; this definitely is a family atmosphere. And a lot of us are going to miss that.”
Looking for a lifeline
Program organizers say the decision to close wasn’t easy.
Pamela Brown says Granite Pathways has been operating on a shoestring budget since it opened, relying on private donations and grants.
“And we just felt that after five years of doing that – still getting very good outcomes – but after five years, we needed to be operating at a budget that would allow us to have at least four staff. That’s even still fairly minimal, but twice what we have now.”
It also needed to find a new home, after agreeing to move by the end of the year as part of a settlement with neighbors concerned about having the program nearby.
And to do all of that, Granite Pathways needed to raise $275,000; but they came up $125,000 short.
Gov. Maggie Hassan and Mayor Ted Gatsas both visited the clubhouse recently, and Brown says board members reached out to others to help find additional funding.
“And I think everyone saw the value, everyone who comes here is impressed and see what a great program it is. The problem was is that there’s just been no solution, no lifeline that kept us going, so we had to make that very difficult decision.”
There was hope one lifeline could have been support from the state, but, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, programs like Granite Pathways don’t qualify for funding as a peer support agency.
“They don’t meet the requirements of our administrative rules, to the best of my knowledge,” says Geoff Souther, Chief Operating Officer for New Hampshire Hospital and former interim director of the Bureau of Behavioral Health.
He says Granite Pathways has never actually applied for a grant, but wouldn’t get one even if it did because it doesn’t use any of the state-sanctioned peer support models.
It also doesn’t have a board of directors made up primarily of consumers, or people suffering from a mental illness, another requirement for funding.
But Pamela Brown says the evidence is in the results.
She says more than half of Granite Pathways’ 86 active members are employed, and many are pursuing some form of higher education.
“Decisions are made by consensus by the members and the staff together. The members outnumber by 8-1 the staff on any given day typically. So it’s very much a consumer-run program.”
Granite Pathways is one of two centers in the state operating under the Clubhouse International model; Seacoast Pathways opened in Portsmouth last year, and was modeled after the Manchester center.
Ann Strachan is director of Seacoast Pathways, and says like Granite Pathways, her organization will at some point need state funding to be sustainable.
“For the state to be so narrow in its definition of what peer support is, that’s very limiting to the numbers of people who aren’t really fitting in that type of environment.”
Some states do embrace the clubhouse model. In Massachusetts, there are more than 30 clubhouse programs, which receive funding through the state Department of Mental Health.
'Let's stick together'
Back at Granite Pathways in Manchester, Jimmy Labonte, one of the two staff members, says he’s not as worried for current members as he is for those who’ll never have the program.
“I think the big concern is those that can’t band together will regress and get more symptomatic because they’ll isolate because they won’t have that place to go that makes them feel good about themselves.”
Members say they know there are other organizations out there for them; On the Road to Recovery is another Manchester-based peer support agency, which received $450,000 in state funding this year.
But some Granite Pathways members say they are leery of starting over at a new place.
For Member Shara Joseph, what comes next isn’t clear.
“I’m nervous about what’s going to happen afterward because I’ve had a lot of mental health issues before coming here and a lot if was due to not having the support and not having a comfortable, safe place to go. So when this place closes, I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Member Tina Frechette says the group plans on staying in touch once the center closes.
“I’m going to miss this place very much, and I think everybody else will, too. But, you know what? We’re going to be friends. We’re all friends. We’re all like family, so…let’s stick together.
Granite Pathways will close its doors for good at the end of the day Thursday.