Green Door Clubhouse for mentally ill closes doors Friday after cuts to funding

Green Door Clubhouse, a program for the District's mentally ill, is closing its doors after 35 years.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 10:45 PM

For 35 years, the Green Door Clubhouse has been a sanctuary where those with serious mental illness could be people, not patients, where they learned to meet the world and where they could always return when the world seemed unwilling to meet them.

Come Friday, it will be history, after the Green Door's leaders concluded that the clubhouse's mix of social, educational and employment programming could not survive cuts in city funding or, as the District urged, rely on Medicaid reimbursements.

Instead, the nonprofit group's $5 million mansion at 16th and Corcoran streets NW will be sold, with the proceeds going to support the array of other mental health services that the Green Door provides at a clinic in Petworth.

This week, though, the focus was on the clubhouse, as hundreds of people streamed into the elegant four-story structure to say goodbye to a beloved fixture.

They ate, they reminisced and they teared up. On a projection screen in the middle of the room, a slide show of memories played.

"Forever in our hearts, We will never forget you 1976-2010," read the epitaph over the final photo, a shot of the clubhouse.

"This is one place that gives you a sense of pride, a sense of dignity, a sense of self-respect," said Carlos Brooks, 64, who said his bipolar disorder was diagnosed when he was 46 and who has been coming to the clubhouse for eight years.

It is the sort of humanity that the Green Door's founders hoped to foster when they opened the facility more than three decades ago in the basement of a Unitarian church at 16th and Harvard streets NW.

The city's mental health system was in an upheaval. Attorneys for the mentally ill had sued the District, and a federal judge had ruled that the city needed to do more to treat people in the community. But there were few alternatives to St. Elizabeths, the vast public psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington.

It was a problem roiling not only the District but also much of the country. One state after another was confronting demands to end the use of large institutions to house the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.

The Green Door and the notion of a clubhouse emerged as a way to create a safe space for such people. Members, as the clients were called, worked together with the staff to run the clubhouse and its programs.

The idea was pioneered in New York, and today about 150 clubhouses are spread nationwide. After bringing the clubhouse model to Washington, the Green Door soon outgrew its space and moved a mile or so south, to 16th and Corcoran. The mansion, which is more than 11,000 square feet and was built in 1886, has remained its home since then.

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