Schenectady’s Mohawk Opportunities educates on mental illness, homelessness

SCHENECTADY –  Mohawk Opportunities, Inc. is on a mission to ramp up public awareness of mental illness through education and transparency of their mission, according to the nonprofit group’s executive director.

“I think once that happens, people who are feeling the stigma may take the risk and engage in treatment because there’s more of acceptance about it around the community,” said Steve Klein, the organization’s executive director, about the Schenectady-based organization that was founded in 1985. “If we can also raise some money as a result of that from people becoming sensitive and supportive our mission, that’d be great.”  

Klein said that when he assumed the post in the summer of 2021, the board of directors also charged him to grow the agency, expand services to meet the increased demand and formulate a plan that was “forward thinking that could move the organization to the next level.”

“The core mission of Mohawk Opportunities is to provide support and services to people with mental illness to help them recover and achieve stability and happiness in their lives,” he said.

Mohawk Opportunities, Inc.

  • 201 Nott Terrace, Schenectady 
  • 518-374-8424

A big part of that, Klein said, is to find homeless people a safe place live and thrive until they can live independently.   

“Once somebody is stable in housing, and we’ve helped engage them in treatment, making sure they’re on their medications, they became kind of a regular person,” he added.  

In some cases, a life-altering or traumatic event can cause a person to stop taking their medication, allowing their mental illness to manifest 

“Trauma is a big important area that we study and that we train our staff to understand the impact of trauma on people’s behaviors and mental illness, and then there are also biological and chemical imbalances in the brain,” he said.

Klein said severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar, depression and personality disorders are “disorders of the mind” that “causes the world to look different to them because of the chemistry of their brain.”  

 Large numbers of people struggling with mental illness are also addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and are homeless, he said.

People seeking help for mental illness can contact the office directly to find out about the services they offer. Mohawk also receives referrals from  county and nonprofit groups that assisting the homeless or people struggling with substance abuse.   

With a projected $10.5 million operating budget for next year, Mohawk has nearly 100 employees ranging from psychiatrists to nurses to social workers at sites in Schenectady that houses an outpatient facility and administrative offices along with four group homes serving 43 people, all located within a five-minute drive from the offices in the Electric City.

One of the residences is a crisis support home that can accommodate a dozen people, for individuals coming out of homelessness or from prison who often require more intensive care and services. Klein said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more individuals seeking out their services.   

“There’s this perfect storm of an increased need, more people need the services, because either they’re first experiencing mental illness or their mental illness has been exacerbated by the stresses of the pandemic,” he said. 

At the same time, there are fewer clinicians and fewer patient beds, the latter due to staffing shortages.

“We go to great lengths to really support our staff, not just financially, but we do a lot agency events as perks for our staff,” he said, adding that once a month, he delivers breakfast, lunch and dinner to employees and clients.

In late October, Mohawk hosted a pancake breakfast employee appreciation day.

“We  try our best to really have our staff feel good about where they work, feel part of a team, feel part of the organization, and that’s part of what we call our culture of caring,” Klein said, adding they serve upward of 500 clients annually.     

The group is working with a property development company and searching for a suitable location for what will be 16 new houses. Once the construction is complete, a $400,000 state grant will help defray the cost of providing services for those occupants of the new residences.

Through a special federal grant, Mohawk also provides housing subsidies to individuals with and affected by HIV/AIDS, and their families. 

Klein said one of the ambitious long-term goals is for the organization to open a state-of-the-art behavioral health care center that would be accessible to community groups assisting people with mental illness that would be handicapped and disabled-accessible.

While he hopes to also do more fundraising, the group relies heavily on federal funding, including Mediacid and HUD that is supplemented by money from the state and county.