A Home Away from Home

A Drop-In Center Where the Emotionally Ill Can Relax and Be Themselves

Fred is one of the regulars at Arch Street Center.

Almost every day, this tall, rather stately gentleman visits the center – a church basement that serves as an afternoon early evening drop-in place for chronically mentally ill people – because he feels at home there.

Fred is 51 and divorced. He lives alone in a tiny room in a downtown hotel. He says he has emotional problems and hasn’t had a job in over four years.

The center plays a vital role in his often-solitary, sometimes lonely life.

“My life wouldn’t be much without Arch Street,” Fred says frankly. “In plain words, I think I’d end up in the hospital.

Since this place opened up, I come down here and I don’t feel as lonely as I did. I come down here and I’m with people. I look forward to coming – it’s my home away from home.”

Fred’s enthusiasm spills over the minute he walks in the door of the center, located at the rear of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 223 W Orange St. On this gloomy day, the center is a beacon of light – its large single room filled with couches, bookshelves and a small kitchen looks homey – and it seems to put Fred in a bright mood.

With his ever-present tan cap perched jauntily on his head, Fred greets the half-dozen other members already there with a cheerful, “Hello, hello, hello, hello.”

The response varies. Rob, a young man in his 20s, is absorbed in watching an episode of “Love Boat” on the center’s TV set, but looks up to say hi. Other gathered around the TV nod.

Evelyn, a middle-aged woman sitting on the couch crocheting a pink scarf, smiles shyly.

Only Victor, a slight, tiny man, fails to respond. He huddles silently on a chair, staring at the floor. Fred’s greetings go unnoticed and unacknowledged.

That’s the way it goes for those who suffer from chronic mental illness. Center members are, as one employee puts it, “in different stages of getting their act together.” Most have long clinical histories of psychiatric problems and simply have a tough time dealing with the stress of everyday living.

Their day-to-day behavior may vary greatly. Some may come to the center and enthusiastically participate in activities. Every few days, something special is planned – dances, movies, field trips to factories or the post office, tours of art shows and museums, speakers and exercise sessions.

Others, like Victor, may come to the center and sit in a chair and stare at the floor.

Both behaviors are accepted here. There is no group therapy. No counseling sessions.

“We try to be as hands-off as possible with the members, “says George Snowdon, center director. “If they don’t want to be involved, we don’t force them.”

More than anything, this drop-in center is simply that, a place to come and hang out, watch a little television, play a game, or just be around people.

“Most members don’t have a lot of social expertise,” Snowdon says. “Our members aren’t going to Dispensing Co. and dance. They might not know how to even ask someone to dance or play cards. We try and facilitate things like that.”

Sound simple? Maybe. But for people like Fred, Rob, Evelyn, and Victor – people, who 10 years ago, might have lived in institutions with full-time care – the center may be their only social outlet.

In the mid-70s, many institutions began to mainstream chronically ill people back into their communities. Some ended up living alone or in boarding houses or hotels. Without jobs or full-time care, they had nothing to do with their time. Boredom and loneliness were often the result.

In Lancaster, programs such as Options and Tempo developed. Both located at 219 E King St, Options is a group-treatment center for the chronically mentally ill, while Tempo is a vocational-training program for the same clients.

So, for a while, the daytime hours of the chronically mentally ill were fulfilled, but the evening hours remained largely unnoticed.

Last year, Lancaster mental health professionals decided to do something about that. In September, they joined forces to help open the Arch Street Center.

People are referred to Arch Street by a counselor or caseworker. Right now, the center has 75 members, who pay an annual membership fee of $1. Meals are served daily at the center, at a cost of 50 cents.

The center is open from 3 p.m until 8 p.m. every day of the year. On a given day, anywhere from four to 20 members may drop in at one time.

Who are the Arch Street Center members? They range in age from 18 to 62, but most are in their 40s. Most are single. Most are city residents.

They are people like Evelyn. Just one month ago, she was in the psychiatric unit of a local hospital. Because of pain caused by medical problems – her weight, arthritis, back problems – she felt depressed and no longer wanted to go on living.

After three weeks of intensive therapy, her stay at the hospital ended. Unfortunately, so did the therapy.

Like Fred, Evelyn lives by herself. Her doctor suggested that Arch Street might be a good place for her to go meet other people.

“I’m very shy, it’s hard for me to go up to a person and talk to them,” Evelyn says. “It’s helped me to come here. If people ask me a question now, I’ll answer them. Before I wouldn’t have.”

Local mental health workers began kicking around the idea for some kind of non-therapeutic, recreational center for emotionally disturbed people three years ago.

Specifically, what they were looking for was some kind of clubhouse, where their clients could watch television, play a little ping pong, or just sit around and chat.

Mental Health Association board member Judy Kasperson approached the Rev. C. Wayne Peterman, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, about the idea, and the minister was intrigued. His church had an available room – a basement area that it no longer needed for its Sunday School classes.

Peterman took the idea to his church’s governing board of lay people. The group approved, and the Arch Street Center was born last September.

Peterman remembers some opposition among his church members – not at the concept of the Arch Street Center, but at the problems that could crop up from using the church building for such a purpose.

Over time, Peterman says, his congregation grew to see the Arch Street Center as a mission-related endeavor.

“For a long time, thus work was provided by the state and institutions. Then, the state, not always for the best of reasons, began to mainstream.” Peterman says, “The buck has to stop somewhere, and in the local community, we are they.”

Other central Pennsylvania cities, such as Harrisburg, Lebanon, York, and Lewistown, have also established drop-in centers.

One of the largest is the Aurora Club in Harrisburg, which is more than 20 years old and serves Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry counties. Dan Berman acting tri-county mental health coordinator, said the Aurora Club, with its $100,000 budget, has between 300 and 400 members, 100 of whom are active.

The Aurora Club operates from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day, providing the same types of services as the Arch Street Center.

In Lebanon, an organization called Halcyon serves almost 200 members. And like the Aurora Club, it opens its doors all day long. Its funding comes from the United Way and from Lebanon County Mental Health Mental Retardation.

Because it is just starting out, the Arch Street Center is still seeking to establish its funding sources. During its first year, the center received $38,876 from Lancaster County MH/MR. And recently, the center asked for more than $34,000 in federal community development block grant funds.

Snowdon, the center’s director, said the CDBG monies plus funds from MH/MR will help to defray an estimated $53,000 in expense this year. Snowdon has also applied for local grants, and the center has received $1,500 in private donations.

Money to support Arch Street Center goes toward the center’s operations and programming, as well as toward the salaries of director Snowdon, activities director Gerry Mills, and part-time activities aide Bob Lee.

The center also relies on a corps of volunteers called the Arch Supports to supply transportation, accompany members to places like Lancaster Lightning basketball games and the Lititz Chocolate Museum and enlist volunteer speakers to discuss such things as personal health care and tenant-landlord relationships.

Mrs. Mills, who handles programming, said she chooses activities and events based on member input whenever possible. “If they have some stake in the activities, they have more success,” she says.

Bingo. television movies and dances are most popular. “You can only play Yahtzee so many times,” she says.

Mrs. Mills says she’s noticed an increasing interaction among members. But, as Snowdon puts it, “Most members experience an ebb and flow in their emotional state. It’s not a steady upward road back to mental health.

“We can see the daily benefits, but it’s very difficult to quantify. How do you say you’re doing a good job? We don’t make widgets.”

The Arch Street Center was dressed for a party. Balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling. Candles were on the dining tables.

About a dozen members walked around in a happy daze this night, party carnations pinned on their shirts and beaming smiles pinned on their faces.

First, there would be an extra-special dinner – meat loaf, corn, baked potatoes, salad, and cupcakes – in candlelight. Later members, would dance to the records of Ray Conniff.

For center members, this was a night to remember. Some of them had never worn a flower before. Some had not danced in years.

Shirley, aged 41, a night at the center is a night away from her small apartment. A night here is a night she can talk to others and chase away the sad feelings she gets when she spends time alone.

“There’s dancing, activities, crafts, and bingo here,” she says happily, “I feel right at home.”

“I’ve learned to control my nerves better since I started coming here. Sometimes I get emotional and lose my temper, you know, if something doesn’t go right. But coming here, I don’t know, it just helps me to get out and meet people and have fun.”

Lancaster New Era – Tuesday, March 6, 1984
By Cindy Cox, New Era Staff Writer and Russell E Eshleman, Jr, New Era Family Editor