The Death of a Nonprofit

The Death of a Nonprofit
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I had been working for the last few years as a therapist at BHS Hollywood Family Recovery, treating "dual-diagnosis" clients in an outpatient drug program. BHS had been in trouble since the economy tanked in August, with County contracts gradually drying up during the course of the year.

After several rounds of layoffs, the CEO Henry van Oudheusdenhad, MSW, sent out a global email describing the millions lost in the last month. He ended the letter with an assurance that we will all band together and move forward as one. A few days later, Henry showed up to meet with our group at Hollywood. He looked haggard and stressed, and he perspired when he talked, which was his way. He was a heated guy. He talked breathlessly about how difficult this is, his love for this program, and how he didn't want to lose the program altogether but that it would be "reset" at ten percent of its current capacity. Then he went on, oddly, to praise the strength and flexibility of BHS even in the face of great adversity. Afterward, he spoke with each employee separately. He told some to pack up immediately and asked others to stay a few weeks to help transition clients to other agencies, which we all knew would be impossible.

BHS Hollywood recovery is in the heart of Hollywood, on Sunset and Highland, just across from Hollywood High School. We got gang-bangers with neck tattoos, fallen porn stars, Hollywood hopefuls who had come to LA to be closer to their dream, not to achieve it. The ones who ended up in therapy tended to have histories of horrendous child-abuse, which left them prone to emotional storms and an incoherent understanding of the past and the future -- Addiction's ideal habitat. I grew attached to my clients, which seemed to help them, and some got over their addictions and got better. It was a good feeling when that happened. Others "went out," or relapsed. I thought "went out" was a strange way of putting it at first, but I came to appreciate its descriptive power. When you call a client and get a message that his phone is no longer in service, you know that he has sold it along with his watch and his computer, that he has disconnected himself from the grid and gone out.

Ex-addicts run BHS. One of the top executives is supposed to have walked Sunset Strip during her using days. They are known collectively as "Corporate" and operate out of a grim stucco-sprayed structure in Gardena, also known as "Corporate." I remember my first corporate Christmas party. On the walls a few plastic Santas competed half-heartedly with giant matching wooden "scrawls" of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. A line of BHS employees -- most of them ex-addicts -- snaked around those walls toward another room. In that room, Corporate stood behind a table in white aprons, ladling out "barbecued" turkey and mashed potatoes. Most of us were embarrassed and a little spooked to be fed, literally, by Corporate.

After the recession, Corporate preached about increasing productivity, which meant more billable hours. The two therapists at BHS Hollywood were already seeing up to twenty clients a week and the chemical dependency counselors 30 or 40. We were being asked to sacrifice quality for quantity but didn't fully feel the pressure because of that word "productivity." It was hard to see talking intimately to people as a "product." Halfway through the year, corporate sent out a mass email with the headline, "BHS is going green!" This turned out to mean that Corporate would no longer supply plastic plates and cups. I wondered how Corporate could quantify treatment and yet be so misty and euphemistic about cost-cutting.

Around the same time, Corporate started "letting people go." Before the recession, people only got "let go" at BHS if they "went out." After the recession, every month brought rumors of sweeps. They're going to be closing a facility or firing 10 percent of the staff, we would hear. And then people would disappear. One day a co-worker just stopped showing up and we learned after the fact that he had been let go last week, along with thirty other employees at 6 separate facilities. In August, Corporate instituted furloughs one Friday a month. In September, a rumor began to float that Hollywood was on the cutting block. We were a small site with relatively expensive rent -- not cost-effective, expendable. It was just a matter of time.

When the blow came, the receptionist and most of the chemical dependency staff were "let go" immediately. Ex-addicts with felony convictions, they would not find new jobs in this economy and were looking at unemployment and welfare. The program director, myself and the remaining CD counselor were given a month "to transition" clients either to BHS' Boyle Heights facility or to another agency. The problem was Boyle Heights could only take a fraction of our clients, and most of the other agencies had either closed down or were full. We were a county-contracted agency with the usual government make-work that goes along with that, but we also helped a lot of people no one else would touch and formed strong bonds with them. Three of my clients began to talk about suicide. A few others "went out." Some left my office in tears or anger. I thought about my clients constantly during that last month but had no words to inspire security. On my last day, Corporate assured me that my clients would "be taken care of," but not one had been placed anywhere.

A few days before I left, I had a dream that I was smoking crystal meth with a client. Having been "let go," did I identify with "going out?" Or did I simply share my client's desire to extinguish emotions that had no solution or object? After all, who even to blame for this catastrophe? Corporate for their callous kow-towing to the bottom-line? California for cutting services to those whose minds and bodies most depend on them? The media for not attending to the plight of people at street level. My greatest fear is that our disappearance will seem to make no difference. Our clients might "go out" or kill themselves, but who will notice?

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