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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Before she was killed by police, Deborah Danner was known for her paintings

At Fountain House, a club house for the

At Fountain House, a club house for the mentally ill, Deborah Danner was known for her paintings and committment to the community. Photo Credit: Mark Chiusano

It started as a clubhouse for six patients from what would become the Rockland Psychiatric Center, looking to make a place for NYC’s mentally ill. They called their group WANA, for We Are Not Alone, but the building they bought on 47th Street in 1948 had such an inviting garden, and a hidden fountain, that they renamed it Fountain House, which is what it was called when Deborah Danner became a member about 10 years ago.

Danner, 66, called her illness the “blue funk,” hovering like the “Sword of Damocles.” The effects of her schizophrenia came over her sometimes — often when she didn’t expect it. Yet at Fountain House she tended to function well.

She was “very independent” and “a strong woman,” says president Kenneth Dudek, comfortable enough to go to his office and argue convincingly about the nonprofit’s smoking policy. For the last five years of her life, she hadn’t been going regularly and from her last interactions with Fountain House staff, hadn’t seemed needy of services. The blue funk could come and go like that, Danner wrote in a 2012 essay, and NYC can be a cruel place for those struggling with its arrival.

In October, she was killed after a police officer answered a call to her Bronx apartment about reports of disturbance.

Police said Sgt. Hugh Barry rushed in and convinced her to put down a pair of scissors. But when she took up a baseball bat he didn’t use his stun gun or retreat, shooting her twice. Last week, Barry was charged with murder, the first time the charge had been used for an on-duty shooting since the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 1999.

The 8-year veteran of the NYPD pleaded not guilty.

It was one of more than 100,000 interactions between police and the emotionally disturbed last year, and it prompted questions about whether the NYPD has been slow to train its officers for interactions with the emotionally disturbed. Of 36,338 officers, about half of them on patrol, 5,538 have received Crisis Intervention Training as of May 26. The training is considered by mental health professionals to be a good way to help officers de-escalate encounters. Barry had not received it.

Fountain House was a safe place and an advocate

In the ’90s, Fountain House was associated with a push for better officer training, after an incident outside the clubhouse resulted in a crowd of officers arresting a member. The nonprofit helped to develop a training program for the NYPD. But progress was slow and didn’t receive adequate funding, says Dudek, and ultimately it stopped.

Fountain House’s main work has continued. The clubhouse has more than 1,300 members, most of whom have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar syndrome, or major depression. Some members come to the light and airy clubhouse in Hell’s Kitchen every day, organized into “units” such as horticulture and research, where they are trained to volunteer alongside staffers to keep the house running. That includes cooking and serving as waiters or waitresses in the dining room, where meals such as shrimp primavera cost $1.50 for members and staff.

Flowers and plants watered and maintained by members green the interior and courtyards. Training programs connect members with part-time jobs at places like the Natural Resources Defense Council or theaters. Sign-up sheets near computers ask members to document whether they’ve received help with “practical problems.” Members wander the wooden floors, en route to banking seminars or the library, or just to sit at a table quietly with others.

A place where Danner found meaning

“Life’s not always rosy,” member Hector said on Wednesday, “but it’s a peaceful place.” It can give members what Dudek calls “purpose” and a stabilizing community. The nonprofit also operates a small number of housing units with supportive services, where more can be done to help members. Advocates say services like that are most beneficial, but availability in NYC is very limited. At the Fountain House main site, staffers and members do what they can on a voluntary basis.

Around the block, members display their artwork at a Fountain House gallery and sell it in shows run by outside curators. One art show opening Thursday — called “The Art of Fashion” — includes professional artists along with members.

Dudek says Danner was very creative, and had received small scholarships from Fountain House to take art classes. The center reviewed their archives and couldn’t find any of her paintings in storage or on its art-covered walls.

But Dudek said some of her paintings had been shown at the gallery, and some of it, he thinks, had been sold.

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