A 5 percent budget cut translates to lost hours, lost jobs

Social activities are part of the holistic programming at the New Heights Center in downtown Danbury, which seeks to counter isolation among those receiving treatment for mental illness. Here a visitor works to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Others drop in daily for coffee, lunch, conversation and the occasional birthday party.

Five years ago, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County decided to try a new model of outreach and treatment for clients in and around Danbury who struggle with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. It renovated a storefront along West Street, a block away from City Hall, and opened the New Heights Recovery and Wellness Center.

The idea was to offer a gathering place where clients could get a healthy lunch, attend classes on nutrition, exercise, anger management, volunteering and other healthy behaviors. It made a nice complement to the agency’s Community Support program of traditional case management, which for more than 50 years has provided free counseling to low-income people lacking health insurance.

Most of all, the new center was a place to make friends, somewhere to be with others at times when being alone becomes unbearable.

“One of the problems for people with mental illness is a sense of isolation,” said Michele Conderino, the agency’s regional director for Northern Fairfield County. The center rapidly became a success, drawing 30 to 50 visitors a day ranging in age from 18-year-olds to a woman of 89.

The curriculum-based programming offers “a whole salad bar of healthy things for your quality of life,” said community mental health services director Charles Coretto. Some clients come by two or three times a day – for a class, or just for a cup of coffee. Some days there are birthday celebrations with cake and singing.

The center stayed open till 8 p.m., so clients with jobs could easily drop in after dinner. Most popular was the weekly “pizza night.”

Then, as the state struggled to balance its budget, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services imposed a 5 percent cut for the current fiscal year. Conderino said it was a shock to the whole organization.

“When a nonprofit take a 5 percent cut, I don’t think many people really know what that means,” she said. “Five percent is extremely significant to a nonprofit like ours, and it always directly impacts clients.”

An unhappy result was the decision to close New Heights at 5 p.m. daily instead of 8 p.m. That was the end of pizza night.

Coretto said another painful cost-saving measure was elimination of two “recovery support specialist” positions, held by one-time clients who are in recovery and made “natural role models” for others.

“We hated to do it, because that gave people hope,” he added. “We’re always trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness.”

The Community Support program, which now serves 132 clients, had to be scaled back and lost 10 clients who had been getting assistance finding affordable housing, Conderino said. “There are people who were getting help to lead happy, productive lives,” she said.

What bothers her most, she said, is that funding cuts violate “the societal agreement that we all made years ago” in closing state mental hospitals such as Fairfield Hills in nearby Newtown that closed in 1995, forcing most patients to rely on less expensive community-based services.

“Any time we make a cut,” she said, “it’s taking away a little bit of that promise.”

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