A group of West St. Paul residents is objecting to plans for a mental health center that would provide residential treatment and crisis services, citing worries about safety.
Officials involved with the project gathered Thursday night at a community meeting hosted by Dakota County to discuss the concerns. More than 80 people showed up.
The crisis and recovery center would be owned by the county and run by Guild, a local not-for-profit and mental health service provider. It must open by the end of 2024 to make use of available state funding.
"I don't think county officials or the Guild are being very forthcoming about what their clients are up to," said Mark Drake, who lives near the proposed site. "For a project like this, let's do the due diligence necessary and be honest with the neighborhood."
Other residents asked why West St. Paul has such a concentration of group homes and social services facilities compared with other Dakota County cities. Several said the county or city should have done more to inform neighbors about the project, though city officials have said they sent notices to residents within 350 feet of the location as required by state law.
Not everyone opposes the new facility.
"We came because we do not want our neighborhood to be represented by those few loud voices," said Jessica Mager, a supporter who lives three blocks from the proposed site.
Mayor Dave Napier said Monday at a City Council meeting that he is "leaning toward supporting" the project because he doesn't believe it will be unsafe.
"If I felt this was any risk, I would not have kept it moving in the way it has [been]," Napier said.
Dakota County officials want to build the 16-bed, 16,000-square-foot facility along Livingston Avenue, northeast of the county's Northern Service Center. The space is currently a parking lot. Officials said they're not yet certain what the facility will cost, but previous estimates totaled $7.6 million.
"In general, there is a lot of demand for these community-based services," said Emily Schug, the county's deputy social services director. "[This] will really create a new, modern, trauma-informed space."
The facility would provide a place for people having a mental health crisis to stay for up to 10 days and "intensive residential treatment services" — considered a step down from a hospital stay — for up to 90 days for longer-term stabilization. Receiving care at the center would be voluntary, not court-ordered.
It will also offer assessments and other services on a walk-in basis. The center would replace Guild South's current facilities, three old Victorian houses in South St. Paul that aren't accessible to people with disabilities.
The project will be funded with $3.4 million in bonding money from the state Department of Human Services, $2.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan and $1.5 million in other state funding. The county is seeking $750,000 from other sources, including health systems and foundations, according to a county spokesperson.
Neighbors seek answers
Drake, who lives about 383 feet from the center's proposed location, said he and fellow concerned residents have been "patted on the head" and told that the agency's clients weren't dangerous when they asked questions of county and Guild officials.
He said his group's members "feel great compassion" for people with serious mental illness.
"Our concern is when people are in crisis, they aren't thinking clearly," he said.
Drake said he made a data request for 911 calls and other documents related to Guild South's operation in South St. Paul over the past two years and received hundreds of pages of calls and reports. He said some of the information involved Guild clients who had criminal histories or warrants out for their arrest.
Ultimately, Drake said he'd like to see the facility located elsewhere.
Evan Henspeter, the county's social services director, told attendees of Thursday's meeting that there's no correlation between mental illness and violence.
What police say
Randy Boyden, a South St. Paul police officer designated to handle mental health concerns, said police "don't have a lot of issues with Guild." He said the agency makes the effort to call police proactively if a client "is spinning out of control or dysregulating."
Greg Altman, West St. Paul's police officer who deals with mental health concerns, said the benefits of a Guild facility outweigh any negatives.
Katie Helgason, a clinical supervisor for Guild, said some clients have histories of violence or brushes with the law. But those incidents happened when they weren't receiving professional help, she said.
"Now that they're [receiving care from Guild], it's actually an extra level of security," she said.
Helgason said clients are monitored 24 hours a day and that Guild makes specific safety plans for clients based on past behavior.
West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon said that if there are any issues at the new facility, police will work with Guild to solve them.
"History has shown that [safety] hasn't been a concern" at a similar facility in Savage, Sturgeon told the City Council on Monday.
Council members will vote Dec. 12 on a conditional use permit and whether to allow the rezoning necessary for the project.