LES Community Clinic Fights to Survive

Lydia Pacheco, a 61-year-old Puerto Rican who suffers from anxiety attacks, is concerned about the possible closing of the Roberto Clemente Center on the Lower East Side. (Photo by Pedro Frisneda via El Diario)

For more than 35 years, the Roberto Clemente Center (RCC) has been one of the few places the low-income immigrant community of Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been able to count on for primary health care.

Still, these vital services, offered mainly in the area of mental health, are being threatened by understaffing that has affected the community clinic for the last four years.

To speak out about this situation, community leaders from the area, as well as activists and patients – most of them Latino – took to the street on Thursday holding signs to protest and to insist that the city’s health authorities meet their demands.

The demonstrators said that Gouverneur Hospital, to which the RCC belongs, has refused to grant the funding necessary to replace a third of the employees the clinic lost during the period it was being relocated and renovated between 2013 and 2017. The hospital is part of NYC Health + Hospitals, the public benefit corporation that operates the city’s public health centers.

The positions that need to be filled at the RCC range from administrative to medical staff, including therapists, social workers and psychologists. This is a cause for concern for patients who have depended on these health professionals for years to get help for their mental health issues.

“We are supporting the demands for this clinic to return to operating at its maximum capacity so it can continue to serve this community,” said Susan Horwitz, attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who is assisting the RCC with the case.

“There is great demand for mental health services everywhere but, in this community in particular, there is a demand for clinics offering these services in a bilingual manner and in Spanish,” added Horwitz.

In a press release, NYC Health + Hospitals refuted the claims, saying that they are “committed to ensuring access to quality primary care and mental health care that is culturally sensitive to the Lower East Side community.”

“That is why [the institution] recently invested $1 million to renovate and beautify the Roberto Clemente Health Center. The center continues offering same-day appointments to patients who need them – as well as during the week and during night hours – to make it convenient for the community to access the care they need,” added the corporation.

RCC representatives said that the lack of staff is serious because the community’s demand for services continues to be high. They added that their capacity to serve patients – both at the administrative and medical levels – has deteriorated, while quality standards have also been lowered.

“We are worried because we want our customers to be able to access effective and high-quality mental health services. The RCC model for providing therapeutic services for the whole family is incredibly effective, but fewer and fewer people have been able to receive those services here,” said Horwitz.

The RCC offers 100 percent bilingual mental health programs in English and Spanish, and most of the patients who use them are Hispanics living in the area.

“I don’t want to be another statistic. If I don’t have good mental health, I cannot tend to my home, to my children, and can’t live like a normal person. I obtain my services here and, if they close Roberto Clemente, I will end up in the streets,” said Lydia Pacheco, a 61-year-old Puerto Rican woman who suffers from anxiety.

“This clinic is like my home. They make you feel you are safe. I have come here in the middle of a panic attack and have returned home a new person,” added Pacheco, who was a city teacher’s assistant for 12 years.

Fear of a possible closing

Patients and members of the community are worried that the shortage of staff at the RCC may lead to a possible closing of the center. Puerto Rico native Héctor L. Torres, who suffers from depression and has been seeing a psychologist for almost a year, shares this concern.

“This scares me and worries me a lot because I have been suffering from depression, and I come here to sit down with a therapist who is like a friend, who helps me deal with my problems. I want to have a more stable life, a better life, because depression holds you back and paralyzes you,” said the 74-year-old.

According to the demonstrators, the staff shortage at the RCC has caused the clinic to have 5,000 fewer patient visits this year, risking an increase in the community’s medical and social problems.

The RCC provides services to people who are at risk of being hospitalized for mental issues or who have been recently discharged from emergency rooms for the same cause, including young patients. They also specialize in offering recovery services for families and immigrants suffering from trauma who are in very vulnerable psychological situations.

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