Fountain House: Social Work Offspring of the Settlement House

Posted on January 26, 2012
Settlement houses provided services but also worked for social change.Settlement houses provided services but also worked for social change.Professional practice at Fountain House is reflective of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century approach to social work, the settlement house movement.   Fountain House shares comparable origins with settlement houses: it was launched by a few wealthy volunteers who joined with a group of ex-patients from a psychiatric hospital. Its connection is underscored by its name, Fountain “House.” Even the original mortgage on the building was held by Hartley House, a settlement house abutting Fountain House from an adjoining street. Aside from these casual associations, however, Fountain House clearly functions today like the 21st century offspring of a settlement house.

Social workers who practiced in settlement houses were proactive problem solvers: they founded nurseries for the children of working mothers, taught immigrants to read English, and opened health and employment centers.  As observed by Husock (1993), they furnished a “living room” within a community where anyone in the neighborhood could come with their personal needs. Central to their mission, the poor were thought to possess personal resources which they could rely upon to improve their circumstances. Instead of direct counseling, they helped residents by encouraging them to assume an active role in the community (pp. 23-24).
Thus, as they addressed head-on the problems of health, education, and employment caused by urban overcrowding and poverty, settlement house social workers sought that the poor take control of their own lives. This non-paternalistic attitude on the part of settlement house workers emphasized an empowerment ideology that is a major tenet of social work (Simon, 1994) practiced at Fountain House today.
In helping people in need, settlement houses functioned not only as agents of development, expanding the provision of needed services, but as vocal spearheads for structural change in society (Davis, 1984). As such, they attributed many social ills to obstructive legal policies and exploitive industrial practices of society at large, not to any moral failure of the immigrants. In contrast to the charitable associations of the time, they were not content with simply resolving individual problems of the poor. In effect, the settlement house movement assumed a person-in-environment approach that represented social justice, not charity, and emphasized the correction of social conditions that led to poverty over the moral redemption of the individual - another key programmatic feature of Fountain House.    

The spirit of the original settlement house workers in valuing settling among the people they wished to help exists as well in Fountain House. Granted, Fountain House staff do not physically reside with the members—each returns at the end of the day to their own home. But, as generalists, Fountain House staff workers are expected to associate with members in a wide range of conditions from working together, to eating together, to learning a job together, to playing baseball games together, or to traveling and rooming together. Fountain House does not limit the interactions of its professional staff and clients based on some specialist definition of duties, nor does it prescribe a professional attitude that precludes these types of associations. Rather, effective social practice at Fountain House demands a range of associations as essential to the overall effectiveness of staff in a helping relationship.

In sum, Fountain House functions the same today for people living with mental illness as settlement houses did for the poor in a previous century.[1] As its name implies, it reproduces the movement as a “settlement,” or place in the community, where professional staff and those who live with mental illness associate widely with one another in seeking ways to empower members to move on with their lives. 
Alan Doyle, Ed.D.
Director of Education, Fountain House

Addams, J. (1961). Twenty years at Hull House. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Davis, A. F. (1984). Spearheads for reform: The social settlements and the progressive movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Husock, H. (1992). “Bringing back the settlement house.” Public Welfare, 109, p.53-72

Simon, B. L. (1994). The empowerment tradition in American social work: A history. New York:  Columbia University Press.

[1] I am indebted to Professor James Mandiberg of Columbia University for this insight.
This blog is sponsored by the Fountain House Institute for Social Practice, an international school committed to the art of designing a community of members and staff working together to support the recovery of those who are living with mental illness. Contact its Director, Alan Doyle

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