A men's discussion group that had long met at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., says it was unfairly evicted from the community center because of what the center called "alignment issues" with the facility's other mental-health programming.
The group, known as "Middle Men," was geared at gay men who are middle-aged or older, and had been meeting at the center since January 2012, according to its facilitator, Marvin Evans, LCPC, who volunteered his services. Middle Men was a support group addressing "existential issues" facing gay males.
But Evans was informed by the center officials in August that the group would have to be out of the facility by the end of September. He was befuddled by the decision, as Middle Men was well-attended, with each member paying about about $15 a session. Evans also said that he was recognized as the center's "Volunteer of the Year" in 2013.
"I was given total autonomy," Evans said. "My only thing was, I had to keep open enrollment every 10 weeks."
He initially approached Claudia Mosier, the center's former director of mental health and youth services, about his idea for the group. At the time, Evans added, "There was no specific therapy milieu for men in our age cohort."
Mosier was an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. "I thought it was an excellent idea for a group," she said. "It was a safe space for discussion, and Marvin's clinical insights were excellent."
Evans said that the group ran smoothly until Mosier left the center. "Under her administration the group was congratulated and commended. That all changed once this administration came on board."
The group's problem began when Director of Community Behavioral Services William Farrand and Director of Behavioral Health Training Crystal Kannankeril took over, he noted. "[The center] became a lot more involved in the running and the maintenance of the group. Bill wanted to sit in and observe the running of the group. I was not open to anyone coming in to observe and supervise. It was not conducive to maintaining the cohesion of the group."
Evans and other group members also objected when the center wanted an intern to be able to sit in on sessions. Members felt that would be an invasion of privacy.
One such member, Ed ( who did not want his last name used ), said, "By that time, we had been functioning so well. This group was vital to me. The hours, my investment of time and cashthis was my time. I did not want it interfered with."
"They were changing the operational model," said Evans. "They were becoming invested in training interns, and it wasn't appropriate for a group with an established history."
He nevertheless polled the group on the matter, saying, "I questioned the necessity and intrusiveness, but we decided that we would be open to a male intern in our age cohort." Evans took that suggested compromise to the center officials, but nothing more was ever said about the matter.
Another problem the center expressed concern over was the running time of the Middle Men sessions, which were scheduled to be 90 minutes long. Mosier said that she had also discussed that with Evans occasionally when she was working at the center. But Evans contended that the group usually needed more time in order for all members to be able to speak. Some sessions lasted as long as three hours, but Evans said the meetings never interfered with the center's other planned uses for their meeting space.
Finally, Center on Halsted officials mentioned concerns about "liability," Evans said, but never addressed what those specific concerns were. He speculated they were related to the center's intake process.
"After the center would publish information informing the public the 10-week group was open to new referrals, individuals interested in joining would usually go through the center's intake process before attending a group meeting," he noted. "However, from time to time walk-in referrals would join and I didn't make an issue of it, especially after making my own assessment of a potential member's appropriateness for the group. I knew this to be an issue for the center; I did mention it to the group but did not push members to be subjected to an intake process that was after the fact, for all intent and purposes.
"There is an element of legitimacy to their concern. As a professional, I recognize this. However, it is not enough, in my opinion, to warrant terminating the group," Evans added.
Once the discord between Evans and the center began, he said officials demonstrated "passive-aggressive behavior" towards the group. For example, an unknown woman at one point entered the room during a session and began looking around, without acknowledging their presence. "There was clearly something wrong," he said.
Member Rick Newbury said that the ongoing problems with the center contributed to a sense of unease amongst members.
"The men in our group are from the Gen X and [baby] boomer age groups," he said. "Many of us spent years in the closet. I know there are ethical standards, but the cardinal rule of counseling is 'do no harm,' and we felt bullied."
Evans had a "heated and contentious" meeting with Farrand and Kannankeril after he received notice of their removal. He brought up the possibility of simply renting a space in the Center, but officials supposedly refused.
Center on Halsted officials did not respond to requests for comment on the situation. But Newbury wrote to Center on Halsted CEO Modesto "Tico" Valle about the matter. Valle responded to Newbury's inquiry with a letter that outlined changes the center was implementing.
"Over the summer the Behavioral Health Department at the center has refined the SOGI ( Sexual Orientation and Gender Institute ) training program," Valle wrote. "This program is designed to give new professionals hands-on training to become LGBTQ competent clinicians. We have changed our practice for hosting non-staff run clinical groups. We now provide opportunities for interns to be part of facilitating groups."
Valle continued by outlining three key changes: groups would be offered in cycles, with a beginning, middle and end; sessions would last 90 minutes or less; and groups would be led by co-facilitators.
According to Valle, "These adjustments allow for a standardized training experience for all trainees. Additionally, a clear and consistent model helps when communicating our standards and practices to clients and funding sources."
Valle invited Newbury and other members to "join a new group that will be offered in the very near future." He further stressed that the center contractual and volunteer therapists would take part in trainings and discussions that "provide support to clinicians and ensure Behavioral Health programming is delivered in a consistent manner that supports the LGBTQ community."
The Middle Men are for now meeting in a local church while they look for a permanent location, a solution that has made some of them unhappy.
Newbury said, "For some of our men, a church is not the most comfortable space."
Ed called the situation "tragic," adding, "I don't know what my future relationship with the Center is going to be."