Welcome Cohort Four! Fountain House, Gytis Simaitis

Gytis Simaitis is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow working with Fountain House. At Fountain House, Gytis conducts research to help clubhouses run more effectively and to help engage members with programming that works. Read on to learn about what inspired his placement as a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow at Fountain House.

The world abounds in humanitarian need. Yet I found my mission at home, in New York City, a place perceived at times as an “oasis of privilege,” quoting a European participant at a recent socio-economics conference. This does not describe the New York City I see most, even if its most celebrated facets meet said criteria. Read on, to hear what I do see.

When I leave my working-class, immigrant neighborhood in the South Bronx on a stroll to the crystalline spires of Gotham, I walk through public housing projects; through neighborhoods dense in drug treatment clinics, homeless shelters, and social service agencies; through abandoned housing stock and the detritus of the Industrial Revolution. And the people? Who do I see? I see plenty of those working-class folks taking care of business or reveling in the day. But I see far too many destitute families, some with wobbly double strollers. I see half-shod, shirtless men wrecked beyond belief, emaciated, covered in sores, and talking to no one in particular. Impulsively, I invest a few bills to their betterment. 

What else can I do? I see transient encampments made possible by Amazon’s cardboard, though this paper ‘hood is mostly vacant on a spectacular summer Sunday afternoon. In the shade of brand-new, stout temples extolling marginal religions (Why build here? Could it be to entice the down-and-out?), I see women squatting. They are older, but it’s hard to tell how old. Compressed like sparrows, they either chirp for change or sort their clinking fortune of aluminum cans and glass bottles.

I boil with rage. This wonderful, fantastic, wealthy-beyond-imagination country I live in cannot manage a serviceable safety net for its most vulnerable. Community is sacrificed to self-interest—is the individual accumulation of wealth so rewarding? I am deeply ashamed to be a citizen whose tax payments are a minuscule cog in this machine of denial. Underfunded and understaffed agencies grind out what they can. Infernal infrastructures host environments of hopelessness, shame, defeat, and meaninglessness. If one wasn’t born with organic mental illness, I can’t think of a better breeding ground for sprouting one afresh. The roster of this marginal world is plump with brains afflicted by Severe Mental Illness (SMI).

And yet— I find an answer to my earlier question: “What else can I do?”  That answer is: “You do what you can.” I am so lucky to work and be at Fountain House:  a clubhouse, and the founding one, of what has become a worldwide movement.  We are communities which weave together members diagnosed with SMI, staff who work side-by-side with them, and the infrastructure to lift people by their strengths—with relationships, work, housing, education, wellness, and food. (As my co-worker and co-Fellow Jen Yoon shows more broadly in her blog post).

Bottom line: it works. Not for everyone, not all the time, but I am profoundly sure that some of those working or eating beside me could have been in that urban purgatory, myself included.

But am I on the front line? Hardly. What do I do? I pound away on a keyboard, wrangling and washing data collected at Fountain House and other clubhouses. I watch columns of numbers cascade down my screen, values happily twinkling in the right spot, like that preternatural meme in The Matrix. How does this help? With a driven team, we are helping clubhouses run more effectively, engaging members with programming that works, reporting to agencies less intrusively, and providing the cold, hard data on Clubhouse effectiveness that foundations yearn to see.

But apprehend now the crowning achievement, drumroll please: we will use “big-data” techniques on our sparkling data stack to illuminate and even predict the complex patterns of engagement which lead to positive outcomes.  I believe the Clubhouse model will find more footings and gain more funding so that clubhouses will rise and expand and welcome more of those suffering just a few subway stops distance from the steely towers of international commerce.

The Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program powerfully encourages me onward and releases a warm glow of validation for what has been, mostly, a labor of love. I obsessively extract and normalize on bright weekends—or when I could have been helping a citizen in the moment, in person. Jen, co-Fellow, and I are uniquely positioned as researchers inside the research, privy to key nuances and stronger for the exertion. I will keep at it until it is done—which by design is never, thus I’m at it, well, forever.  On my future stroll to Gotham, the need will be a little bit less because people will be doing what they can–and clubhouses will be filling the void.

About the Hilton Prize Coalition

The  Hilton Prize Coalition  is an independent alliance of the winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. The Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat,  Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit  prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact  prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow  the Hilton Prize Coalition on  Twitter and  LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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