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Those fears boiled over at a public meeting at the Crow Wing County courthouse, where residents let out audible gasps as a DHS official described the project. One local resident asked, “Can you guarantee that there isn’t going to be violent people living there in two years or six months? And if they do, and they come busting in my house, what am I supposed to do?”
Though the Nokay Lake group home eventually opened, the controversy underscores a pressing legal and financial challenge for Minnesota.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case, known as Olmstead vs. L.C., that segregation of people with disabilities violates federal law, and that states must deliver services in the most integrated setting possible. Disability rights advocates have compared the ruling to Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 case that banned segregation in public schools.
Last fall, Minnesota officials unveiled an ambitious blueprint, known as an “Olmstead plan,” for implementing the federal ruling. The 131-page plan calls for increasing the state’s stock of affordable housing for people with disabilities by 10 percent a year and dramatically reducing unnecessary hospitalizations at the Anoka treatment center, among other proposals.
The case of mentally ill children is particularly acute. Statewide, only 39 percent of counties have residential treatment services for children with mental illnesses. In some rural areas, treatment beds for children are up to 200 miles away from families and have up to 60-day waiting lists for admission.
As one Twin Cities nonprofit recently found, community resistance can be overcome through aggressive, grass-roots organizing.
For six months, Martha Lantz, the executive director of Minneapolis-based Touchstone Mental Health, tried to locate an assisted-living facility for adults with mental illnesses in the suburbs, but she was repeatedly spurned by local officials who claimed they did not need the services in their communities.
“It was ‘NIMBY’ in a more subtle way,” Lantz said.
Undeterred, Lantz turned to the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, where she would spend the next two years hearing concerns from local residents. She met with local clergy, attended house parties, and even hosted a yoga event at Matthews Park. The 40-bed facility was ultimately approved and opened in June.
“The social worker in me says, ‘What a shame that we have to educate folks who are terrified of people with mental illness,’ ” Lantz said. “But the hard work definitely paid off in the end.”
Commissioner Jesson said public officials and care providers need to connect with people’s own experiences, and not discuss mental illnesses and disabilities as if they belong to a remote minority. More than 1 in 5 Minnesotans has a disability, and about 1 in 4 has a mental illness, according to state and national data.
“Unless we are really in denial, we all know these people,” she said. “If we want them to get help, we need to have a community that’s open to that.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308