By Greg Kwasnik
BOSTON — Members of a Hopedale mental health center joined other protesters to march on Gov. Deval Patrick’s office yesterday, objecting to potential budget cuts they say would hobble the state’s mental health programs and shut down their own organization, the Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition.
Forty-six members of Hopedale’s Crossroads Clubhouse chartered a bus to Boston to march with hundreds of other clubhouse members and advocates from across the state. Walking the half mile from the Department of Mental Health building to the State House, the large group held up traffic, waving signs that read “Save Our Clubhouses” and chanting: “What don’t you get? Clubhouse is our safety net” and “We vote, we count.”
Several Crossroads members, including Douglas resident John Trask, took up a microphone to speak out against the possibility of cuts that could be forced by an estimated $600 million state budget deficit.
Trask, who was diagnosed with mental illness as a child, joined Crossroads Clubhouse in 2007 after repeated hospitalizations. He is now a student at Quinsigamond Community College.
“The clubhouse has enabled me to return to school, and it’s one of the only things really that keeps me out of the hospital consistently,” Trask said, his voice breaking with emotion. “But since I became a member I’ve not needed hospitalization for the past three years and I’ve returned to school.”
Reva Stein, executive director of the Massachusetts Clubhouse Coalition, said cuts to her organization would be devastating. Stein said the state’s suggestion to replace the clubhouses with less structured drop-in centers would be a poor replacement for the housing assistance, job training and community support now offered to 8,000 individuals in 32 clubhouses across the state.
“They’re thinking of replacing them with drop-in centers, which are demeaning, dead-end places where people smoke cigarettes and do scratch tickets all day,” Stein said. “It would be a disgusting way to serve people with disabilities. Our members won’t accept that.”
Anna Chinappi, spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health, declined to say if drop-in centers had been proposed as alternatives.
Chinappi said officials at the Department of Mental Health would meet with Gov. Patrick to discuss funding later this week.
“We’re waiting to hear from the governor on Thursday about what our mid-year reduction will be at this point,” Chinappi said. “That’s really all I can say.”
Cindy Roy, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration and Finance, said she was not aware of a move to replace clubhouses with drop-in centers. Roy said Gov. Patrick is focused on maintaining important services.
“The governor has very difficult choices in front of him working to close this gap,” Roy said. “It’s really important to note that no final decisions on budget reductions have been made yet.”
As the group of protesters worked their way through the State House to the governor’s office, Senate President Therese Murray said the governor would try to spread the budget cuts so that they would not target a specific group.
“I think this time he’s going to be looking at trying to balance that out,” Murray said after meeting with mental health and disability advocates outside her office. “We’ll have a discussion probably at the end of the week or the beginning of next week.”
One area lawmaker, Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, hopes the cuts to clubhouses will be minimal. Fernandes, who has visited the Crossroads Clubhouse, said in an interview that cutting funding for the centers would be a mistake, especially during tough economic times.
“They are about as efficient and as effective a delivery entity as I’ve seen, in terms of carrying out their mission,” Fernandes said. “If we lose those clubhouses, it will be penny-wise and pound-foolish, because we will be going backward in the delivery of services, and when we go backward it will cost us more money to deliver those same services.”
Tom Reece, a constituent services aide to Gov. Patrick, met with protesters outside the governor’s office at the end of their march.
While he did not say whether the clubhouse program would be cut entirely, he said the governor takes his budget responsibilities seriously.
“The governor knows it’s not just about the line items and the bottom lines and the numbers of the budget as much as it is the lives of the people affected,” Reece said. “So that’s obviously foremost on his mind going through this process.”
Reece said the administration would release more detailed information about which programs will be cut in the coming week.