Youth in crisis now have a safe, comfortable place to stay in Dakota and Washington counties.

Aspen House, a Mendota Heights crisis shelter with 12 beds, opened about three weeks ago and has taken in its first youth from both counties. Run by nonprofit Nexus Family Healing, the short-term facility offers on-site services and activities to help youth ages 12 to 18 as they navigate family issues or their own mental health needs.

Youth may stay at the shelter, which is tucked into a residential neighborhood, for up to 90 days when they're receiving child protection services but no foster family can be found, when dealing with mental health concerns that don't warrant a hospital stay, or when they're involved with the justice system but don't need a locked facility, Dakota County officials said.

The shelter doesn't accept walk-ins. Youth must be referred by county child protection workers, juvenile corrections staff or the after-hours crisis response unit, said Shannon Gibson, a Dakota County social worker.

"There hasn't been that kind of safe place for them that meets their needs," Gibson said. "It's very disruptive for the kids ... to be removed [from their home] and not able to continue with school, not able to remain connected to their community, having to stop therapy."

Gibson said that previously, young people needing somewhere to stay may have been sent far from home, taken to the hospital or ended up in a detention facility instead of a place like Aspen House.

The shelter fills a gap in community-based mental health services for youth and replaces the privately owned Harbor Shelter in Hastings, which closed in 2019.

"[Filling such gaps] is the main reason why we were called to do this work," said Nicole Mucheck, executive director of Minnesota community services for Nexus Family Healing.

Aspen House is unique because of the variety of community partners that came together to create it, including law enforcement, the local school district, hospitals, county officials and even the building's neighbors, Mucheck said.

Youth can get diagnostic assessments and group, family and individual therapy from licensed psychologists on-site. There are also educational services — two staff members who teach the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district's curriculum to youth each day — and social and recreational activities.

Youth at Aspen House come from challenging environments "way beyond what an average kid experiences," said Errol Rubenstein, who teaches students four core subjects each day along with the help of an educational consultant.

He said the Aspen House environment — which offers small classes and a structured schedule — helps the kids a lot. Activities like yoga and games are also integrated into the day, he said.

While Rubenstein has experienced a student knocking over his coffee and slamming down a laptop, refusing to do work, most students are "unbelievably great," he said.

At Aspen House, case workers also line up visits with family, and staff can coordinate online appointments with kids' existing providers. And while youth are staying there, county and Aspen House staff work on finding a more permanent spot for them, whether that's moving back with family or going to foster care.

On a recent Thursday, seven youth were sitting in a common area, laughing while they played a game of charades with staff on their lunch break. They sat in comfy chairs in front of a brightly-colored mural of trees.

Fahmo Hans is a mental health therapist at Aspen House who runs a "psychoeducation group" for all residents, five days a week. Topics of discussion include creating boundaries, she said, or examining one's core beliefs. Some kids get individual therapy, too.

Hans said Aspen House "is one-of-kind" because of the caring and compassion staff offers.

"They're creative, they're receptive to change. They're just really eager to learn, too," she said of the youth. "They have a bright future ahead of them."

The Aspen House building, a former group home, cost $850,000, and officials committed up to about $1.5 million for improvements, a Dakota County spokeswoman said. Of that total, Washington County contributed $400,000 and Dakota County covered the rest. Both counties used American Rescue Plan funding.

In general, each county pays a daily rate to Nexus Family Healing for the placements they make, though both counties committed to funding a minimum number of beds to start.

Brianna Hill, Dakota County's corrections supervisor, said she hopes to see similar facilities created in the future — perhaps another shelter or a youth detox center.

"Twelve beds is never enough," she said.