Only program for mentally challenged queer New Yorkers falls prey to budget cuts
State budget cuts are threatening to close the only program in New York that specifically helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people living with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
“These cuts will cause our club to close and our clients will have nowhere else to go,” said Christian Huygen, a psychologist and director of the Rainbow Heights Club, at a February 23 press conference on the steps of City Hall.
In his proposed $105.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins on April 1, Gov. George E. Pataki cut $3.15 million in mental health funds for New York City.
The city’s health department uses those dollars to fund services at 21 different private agencies including Rainbow Heights, which operates a drop-in center in downtown Brooklyn.
In a January 31 letter, the city health department told the club that it would lose $203,500 of its $206,000 in funding as of July 1. With the only other financial support coming from small grants from the Paul Rapoport Foundation and the Henry van Ameringen Foundation, the cut effectively eliminates the club’s entire annual budget.
The two-year-old club has roughly 250 clients who participate in counseling groups, social activities and other events there five days a week. For some members, the club is central to their lives.
“I didn’t have a social life until I came here,” said a peer specialist at the club who asked that her name not be used. “If the club were to close, it would be the end of a dream for me.”
The peer specialist, 49, comes to the club three times a week where she runs groups.
“It makes me feel like a better person,” she said. “Not only am I helping them, I am helping myself.”
Michael L. Livote, 39, started coming to the club six months ago. While he is currently homeless and looking for a place to live, he still gets to Rainbow Heights “three, four, five days a week,” he said during a February 18 interview with him and other club members.
“I have a pretty busy schedule, but I always make time to get down here,” he said. “I’ve been to numerous other clubs. This is as focused a club as I have seen. They have a purpose and they stick to it.”
Alvin Fahn, 55, said he comes to the club “almost every day.” He has been living in supportive housing since 1992, but it was only after he found Rainbow Heights that he was able to overcome the isolation that is often a part of serious mental illness. Previously, most of his time was spent alone.
“I was spending it mostly alone in my room, watching TV, that’s it, reading,” Fahn said. “[Rainbow Heights is] highly important to me. I don’t say this lightly. It’s a way of life for me.”
Hearing that the club may have to close was very difficult, Fahn said.
“I became panicked,” he said. “At first, I felt a sense of hopelessness, despondency… It’s still stressful.”
The club, however, is fulfilling its function. The members are helping one another during a hard time.
“We’re supporting each other through this,” Fahn said. While some club members were stunned by the news, they are also organizing a letter-writing campaign to elected officials.
“There was shock and numbing and typical traumatic responses,” Huygen said in a February 18 interview. “There was also simultaneously a real wave of advocacy and mobilization that was really moving to see.”
Much of the organizing work is being done by Livote and Bert Coffman, 55, a club member and the founder of the Zappalorti Society.
The society, a support group for queers with mental illness, was founded in 1992. It meets twice a week at the LGBT Community Center. It is named for James Zappalorti, a gay, mentally ill man who was murdered on Staten Island in 1990.
“There is no other safe space where they can be both gay and mental,” Coffman said of Rainbow Heights. “For the gay mentals, our situation is much like that of gays 50 years ago sitting at home imagining we are the only ones.”
On February 23, City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who chairs the council committee that oversees mental health and represents parts of lower Manhattan, held a press conference to condemn the cuts.
“The cuts that he is proposing will literally dismantle 21 agencies,” Lopez said. “These cuts will destroy these agencies.”
Lopez was surrounded by clients from the Hospital Audiences, Inc. (HAI), which brings arts programming to institutionalized New Yorkers and takes them out to arts performances. HAI will lose 20 percent of its annual budget under the cut.
Staff from the Urban Justice Center, which provides legal services to roughly 1,000 mentally ill New Yorkers, also turned out. That program lost its entire $124,000 annual budget for legal services for the mentally ill under the cut.
The state budget office said that it has increased spending on services for the mentally ill and implied that the problem lay with the city’s health department.
“The executive budget provides an increase of nearly $32 million, or four percent, to the Office of Mental Health aid to localities program,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for the state budget office. “In addition, we have made every effort to ensure that these changes only affect under-performing or less cost effective programs while taking steps to prevent a disruption of services for those with serious mental illnesses.”
The city health department did not respond to calls and e-mail seeking comment.
For some club members, the politics are almost irrelevant, but Rainbow Heights is very real.
Ronald, 49, has been coming to the club for a “very long time.” He says many of the members are his friends and the club is where he can talk openly about his life.
“We talk about things, we laugh, we socialize,” he said. “I got a lot of friends here. This is where all my friends are… I want Rainbow Heights to keep open.”