The closing of the Woodlawn Mental Health Center disrupted the lives of the Black men it served

The center provided the men with a refuge and some of them still call it home.
by Frederick H. Lowe.
William Robinson found a second home at the Woodlawn mental health clinic. Photo by Rosemary Lambin.
William Robinson found a second home at the Woodlawn mental health clinic. Photo by Rosemary Lambin.

William Robinson was afraid to leave his home on Chicago’s South Side after being robbed twice at gunpoint and kidnapped once at gunpoint.

Robinson, a former automobile and property claims processor for State Farm Insurance Co., was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. He found empathy and help from Jan Gilmore, his therapist at Woodlawn Adult Health Center, one of Chicago’s public mental health clinics.

Gilmore drove his car to pick up Robinson at his home for his therapy sessions.

“Before he drove me to the clinic, he would ask me if I had had something to eat. I didn’t have the funds so he would take me to McDonald’s, Church’s Chicken or other fast-food restaurants,” said Robinson, who was a client of Woodlawn from 2003 until 2012. That’s when the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) closed Woodlawn and five other public mental health clinics, citing budget cuts.

“I am so much better now because of Mr. Gilmore, Steve Dyson [another therapist] and Mr. [Daniel] Jean [Woodlawn’s director],” said Robinson during an interview. “I’m sorry those guys are gone.”

Robinson wasn’t the only Woodlawn client who received both orthodox and unorthodox care that helped improve his functioning.

Calvin Jerome McCloud could barely walk after he injured one of his ankles playing basketball. So McCloud telephoned Sidney Murphy, his therapist at Woodlawn.

Murphy drove from his home in Kenwood to the basketball court in Woodlawn, a few miles away, and took McCloud to the emergency room of South Shore Hospital.

Physicians stabilized McCloud’s injured ankle, and Murphy drove McCloud back to his apartment building on South Shore Drive. He escorted McCloud to the building’s entrance.

“Is there anything else you need from me?” Murphy asked McCloud. McCloud thanked him and said no.

Natural interactions are a necessary part of therapy to help black men

McCloud, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had been a patient at Woodlawn since 1987. He had come to expect kindness from Murphy and from the center’s other black male therapists.

On occasion, Murphy picked up patients at five in the morning so they could watch the sunrise while sitting on the beach near La Rabida Children’s Hospital on Chicago’s South Side. At the shore, some of them would read poetry or passages from a novel. They also would talk or sit in silence and watch the shimmering sun come up over Lake Michigan.

Murphy called the gatherings “fire drill.”

“I wanted them to get up and make it happen. Too many of them were locked into taking their medications. They were locked into their situations. I wanted them to meet others and get involved in groups. Lift weights, play chess or ride a bike.”

Other times, Murphy would play basketball with the clinic clients and buy all of them breakfast afterwards.

“It was a necessary part of therapy because the mentally ill don’t believe they have a right to breathe air, take a walk or share their experiences with others,” Murphy explained. “It was a beautiful thing to see them grow.”

Black men generally live constricted lives, knowing that everything they say or every move they make can be misinterpreted as aggressive by women and men from every ethnic and racial group, sometimes with deadly consequences.

This is particularly problematic with the police. In recent years, police have shot and killed a number of unarmed black men, claiming they feared for their lives. Police use of force against the mentally ill is an ongoing problem. Among the black men killed recently was Anthony Hill, a Georgia man going through a bipolar episode who was naked and unarmed when he was shot dead.

Mentally ill black men often feel a deep sense of constriction, Murphy said. In Robinson’s case, he lived for a time a very constrained life because he had been a victim of three violent crimes in which he feared for his life.

Murphy and other black male therapists help black men with mental illness overcome these barriers and live fuller lives. But Murphy left the Woodlawn clinic in 2012, and shortly after the city laid off the two remaining black male therapists in the city public mental health system, as part of the 2012 budget cuts that also meant the closing of six clinics.

The vote to close the city’s mental health centers

All of the city’s black aldermen voted for the 2012 budget which included the clinic closures, despite clear evidence that accessible out-patient psychiatric services are needed in their wards. One of the aldermen who voted to close the clinics was Willie B. Cochran, whose 20th ward includes Woodlawn. He did not return two calls for comment regarding his vote.

“All of the black aldermen should be ashamed,” said N’Dana Carter, a leader of the Mental Health Movement. “They all knew about the closings. They are all thieves and murderers. They have supported everything [Chicago Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] has done to the black community.”

Woodlawn’s closing drew the most attention, resulting in a very public fight over the policies of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who received strong black voter support in the 2011 mayoral election, and Bechara Choucair, MD/MS, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health at the time. (Choucair has since left the department for a job in the private sector.)

Before the closure, members of the activist group Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) barricaded themselves inside the Woodlawn clinic using steel pipes and quick-dry cement. Ultimately police armed with chainsaws and bolt cutters broke into the building and arrested 23 protestors. Chicago police also demolished a tent city erected in a vacant lot across the street from clinic. The dismissed therapists had been using the tent city to continue to treat their patients.

In addition to Woodlawn, city officials closed clinics in Rogers Park, Logan Square (the Northwest clinic), Auburn-Gresham, Back of the Yards and Beverly Morgan Park.

In a March 23, 2012 report, “CDPH Mental Health Center Consolidation Status Update,” the CDPH promised that no disruptions of treatment would occur after the city clinics closed. That assurance, however, was empty, according to Council 31 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union that represents the centers’ workers.

“Beginning in November of 2011, CDPH began implementing a transition plan to ensure every individual receiving care from CDPH continued to have access to care without interruption of care. Every CDPH client transferring to a new facility, service provider, or therapist, developed an individual transition plan taken by each CDPH therapist,” the report said.

Those plans went awry, however, when two partnering agencies selected by CDPH to provide services to CDPH clients covered by Medicaid, the Community Mental Health Council and the Counseling Center of Lakeview, closed within months of the announcement, District Council 31 of AFSCME noted in its report, “Abandoning The Most Vulnerable: The Real Consequence of Closing City of Chicago Mental Health Clinics.”

The closing of Woodlawn saved Chicago money, but it disrupted clients’ lives

The shutdown of the city-operated mental health clinics saved the city $2 million to $3 million annually. That was 1 percent of CDPH’s $169.2 million budget, or 0.03 percent of the city of Chicago’s 2012 $6.3 billion budget, according to an analysis of the city’s budget by AFSCME District Council 31 and the Mental Health Movement. The report, published in January 2014, is titled “Dumping Responsibility: The Case Against Closing CDPH Mental Health Clinics.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told Northwestern University Social Justice News Nexus Fellows, during an interview in his office in January, that CDPH officials never put forth a compelling argument justifying the clinics’ closing. Sheriff Dart added that he refused to sign his name to a news release issued by CDPH announcing the closings.

“Woodlawn was a good clinic,” Dart said. “People could walk there and receive treatment. They did not have to take a bus. Its closing definitely hurt. The closing was reckless and irresponsible.”

Horace Howard4
Horace Howard, photo by Rosemary Lambin.

Photographer Rosemary Lambin and I visited Horace Howard, another former Woodlawn client, to take a photo of him outside his building in the 6100 block of South Kenwood Avenue. We could see the Woodlawn clinic a few blocks away. It was not only a clinic but a local source of support and camaraderie for Howard and other clinic clients. Howard now has to travel more than an hour to go to the North Side for treatment.

Woodlawn was known as the best mental health center for black men

Daniel Jean, a licensed clinical professional counselor who was director of the Woodlawn clinic from 1999 until it closed, characterized the clinic as the foremost Chicago mental health center for the treatment of African-American men.

Daniel Jean was former director of the Woodlawn clinic. Photo by Frederick Lowe II.

“Men could go there and get a haircut, look for jobs, get a physical examination, and Woodlawn also employed three African-American male therapists and one black male psychiatrist,” Jean said.

Although the mental health center is closed, the Woodlawn building still houses Project Brotherhood, an organization promoting male responsibility that meets Thursdays.

In addition to clinical services, Woodlawn provided black men with a sanctuary where they felt they weren’t constantly under surveillance.

Woodlawn’s closing affected Glenn Ford Jr., who wants to be called Ummi Yaya, an African name he has chosen for himself. I met him at his apartment in Hyde Park, which reminded me of an art gallery with its beautiful handmade, mosaic stained glass artwork covering the walls. Yaya installed light bulbs inside the frames holding the art pieces, and when he switches on the lights, the stained glass looks magical. Yaya also writes poetry, including a searing piece titled “I Didn’t Take My Medication Today.” He wrote the poem when he was a patient in the psychiatric unit of Jackson Park Hospital. Yaya also makes jewelry, but he said his strength is oratory.

Yaya in his Hyde Park apartment photo by Rose Lambin
Ummi Yaya in his Hyde Park apartment photo by Frederick H Lowe, II.

During our initial interview, the 40 year-old Yaya pulled up the sleeve of his sweater on his right arm to show me several scars from a long line of self-inflicted knife wounds. He then lifted his chin to show me several more scars from knife cuts to his neck.

Yaya has attempted to kill himself three times by slashing his arms and his neck, he said.

“I used a big butcher knife,” he said holding the index fingers of both hands far apart so I could get a picture of the butcher knife’s length.

He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with a “schizoid effect” [schizoaffective disorder], he said as he sat cross-legged on his couch.

“Because of my anxiety, I was up for three weeks at a time. I was a patient at the Woodlawn clinic for 10 to 12 years. I don’t remember how many,” said Yaya who also had been a patient of Murphy’s. “I’m still affected by the closing. I can’t find a psychiatrist or a therapist I can talk to. I need to have a psychiatrist to order medication and a therapist to talk to before I hurt myself or someone else.”

Traveling longer distances and paying more for treatment

The decision to close Woodlawn disrupted treatment for many like Yaya, forcing them to travel longer distances to seek help and to work with new therapists, which can be a challenge in itself because clinical relationships require trust established over years.

Many of the city clinic clients were poor black men whose lives didn’t seem to matter to the city’s elected officials and bureaucrats, advocates say.

Calvin Jerome McCloud in his South Shore apartment. Photo by Frederick Lowe II.
Calvin Jerome McCloud in his South Shore apartment. Photo by Frederick Lowe II.

After Woodlawn closed, McCloud, who is 60, initially went to the Community Mental Health Council, one of the private providers where city officials referred former clients of the closed clinics. But then the Community Mental Health Council also closed on Aug. 1, 2012. McCloud was then transferred to another of the city’s public mental health clinics, Greater Grand Mental Health Center at 4340 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

The move has been a hardship for him.

“On a comfortable day and if my ankles weren’t hurting, I could walk to Woodlawn or take one bus to get there in 35 minutes,” said McCloud, who lives in the 7500 block of South Shore Drive. “I really enjoyed walking, especially when I was mad. Now I have to take the Number 6 bus to 55th Hyde Park and the Number 4 bus to 43rd Street, near where the clinic is located. It takes me an hour and half to get there.” Robinson said the bus ride to Greater Grand doesn’t bother him, but the first time he checked in, a clinic staffer requested a $30 copayment to see a therapist or a psychiatrist, which was 10 times higher than the $3 copayment required at Woodlawn.

“I said, look, you can’t charge patients that amount of money. Most of us are on limited incomes, and we can’t afford it,” he said. Officials agreed to cut the copayment to $15, which is still much higher than most can afford.

Yaya also went to the Community Mental Health Council. When it closed, Yaya like McCloud went back to a city public clinic, in his case, the Englewood Mental Health Clinic. There, clinic staff signed him up for medical benefits under the Affordable Care Act. The federal legislation requires private insurance companies to provide mental health benefits.

He signed up with CIGNA, a Bloomfield, Conn.-based insurance company. CIGNA officials said, however, that they did not have any psychiatrists or therapists who accepted CIGNA insurance working in Yaya’s Hyde Park zip code of 60615.

Instead, company officials referred him to psychiatrists and psychotherapists located either in the far south suburbs or to ones on Chicago’s far northwest side or the northwest suburbs. As of late December, Yaya said with a sigh that he had given up looking for a psychiatrist and a therapist, but he would resume his search later.

A primary care physician prescribed Yaya six months of medication: Zoloft, which treats depression, panic and social anxiety disorder and Zyprexa, a medication given to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. When I interviewed him in late December, he had two months of medications remaining.

When I told Jean of Yaya’s plight, Jean found a psychiatrist and a therapist in the Loop who agreed to take Yaya as a patient. But Yaya still misses going to Woodlawn. Yaya grew up in the neighborhood, and he would either walk, ride his bike or drive to the clinic. He is scheduled to meet a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist sometime in May at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago.

Disagreement over client numbers

AFSCME Council 31 and the CDPH can’t agree on the number of patients who were served by the now-shuttered clinics. The union said that before the closure, the city mental health centers served 5,337 patients, based on the city’s own numbers. But city officials said that total included inactive cases, and at the time of the closures the clinics had 3,282 active clients. City reports say 2,626 would remain with CDPH after the closures, and 656 patients would become clients of other community-based providers.

Union officials think that the CDPH’s own numbers indicate clients fell through the cracks.

A city report from February 2012 said there were 3,282 active clients in the system before the closures. But then in August 2012, the city reported there were 2,798 people being served or monitored by the CDPH: 2,369 at city clinics and 429 who had transferred to private providers. The union and the Mental Health Movement point out that about 500 people seem to have disappeared from the system between February and August.

African Americans are hardest hit by the closings

AFSCME said that at the clinics that were closed, 61 percent of the clients were African American. Many of them were indigent, union officials said.

It was not clear how many were African-American men, but Darryl Gumm, chair of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago, said the free city clinics were essential for black men seeking treatment.

“It is clearly an economic issue. Most black men can’t afford to pay a psychiatrist or a therapist for treatment of depression because of the high-unemployment rate in the black community,” Gumm said.

Yet, the closing of Woodlawn and the city’s abandonment of black-male patients was foretold earlier. City officials eliminated the Therapist II position and replaced it with a new Therapist III position. All of the Therapist IIs were African American men. All of the candidates and new hires for Therapist III positions were white or some other ethnic or racial group. (Robert Steward who works at the Englewood Mental Health Clinic is the only African American Therapist III working in the six remaining clinics. Steward was demoted to another position in 2012 but was promoted last November when another clinician retired.)

The staffing decision reduced options for African-American men seeking services, said D. Jo Patton, director of special projects for AFSCME Council 31. “Not every black man wants to see a black-male therapist, but most of them want to,” said Patton, adding that it’s impossible for the union to restore the position once it is eliminated.

“If the city fires one worker, we can fight it. But if the city eliminates an entire job category, there’s nothing we can do,” Patton said.

Woodlawn was a refuge for black men

Robinson called Woodlawn a great clinic because it built a sense of community among its clients and surrounding residents, including a nearby senior citizens home.

“The clinic would hold picnics in Jackson Park, dinners and Christmas dinners. We also had a Fun Day, where would eat, play cards or watch a movie,” Robinson said. “Woodlawn officials also took us to White Sox and Chicago Bulls games.”

Woodlawn’s clients met with the elderly residents of the nearby senior citizens’ building. The clients gave the residents hats, gloves and scarves as Christmas gifts.

The Woodlawn clinic employed what is called a therapeutic social club strategy, which involved psychosocial rehabilitation or the restoration of community functioning for clients who sometimes have difficulty managing everyday tasks due to depression. Dr. Frantz Fanon, the renowned Martinique-born Afro-French philosopher, author and psychiatrist, used a form of the therapeutic social club strategy to treat his patients. A similar atmosphere existed at the Woodlawn clinic.

The closing of Woodlawn eliminated a safe haven for the black men who went there.

“When I was feeling angry, I would go to Woodlawn and lie down on the couch,” McCloud said. “No one would bother me. After a while, I felt better.”

David Mailey, 58, a former patient who was the founder and publisher of Woodlawn Connection, a monthly in-house newspaper for the clinic’s patients and employees, said he still goes to the clinic building even though it is closed.

As we were standing outside the closed building on a snowy Sunday afternoon, Mailey told me, “I consider it home.”