Supportive community housing is about putting a safety net under and around people who need mental health and health care services, are transitioning out of substance use, or are relocating away from unhealthy environments or incarceration. Minnesotans are sharing their stories so more people understand why this housing is needed.
In 2007, Center City Housing in Duluth opened its first permanent supportive housing project. Nancy Cashman, executive director, told Minnesota Women’s Press in a 2021 interview that the New San Marco “was unique at the time, in that we were providing housing for very barriered homeless single adults who were struggling with long-term alcohol use” and did not require sobriety.
A 24-hour front desk provides safety and support. Vans take people to appointments. Case management and navigators help with the court system and goal-setting. There are community-building activities, like walking clubs and model car development.
In 2018, Solace Apartments was established by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership after a treatment court judge and a clinical psychologist recognized the support that was missing to help people succeed at recovery. With an often less than 1 percent vacancy rate in the Nicollet County area, people being discharged from treatment or jail were sometimes living in a car or moving back into an environment that was not conducive to staying sober.
A team came together to solve that challenge, including the treatment judge, the clinical psychologist, an architect, county human services and case management staff, police, probation officers, drug court graduates, city and county officials, the public defender and county attorney, and property managers.
One of the biggest challenges for Solace today is that it has a long wait list, serving Nicollet and Blue Earth counties. Many Minnesota counties do not have a good plan for working with community members struggling with addiction. In one of the earliest Changemakers Alliance (CALL) conversations, we connected members directly in a group conversation with Solace representatives. One of the members said she once worked for a nonprofit in northern Minnesota. If a person in a homeless shelter relapsed, she said, the person was given a bus token to travel to Duluth.
As someone who works with struggling families, the CALL member asked, how do we help people avoid the trap of thinking there are deserved poor or deserved addicts — that people in recovery are “throwaway people”?
Ashley McCarthy, resident services navigator at Solace, replied: “I feel like it all comes down to [listening to] individual stories.”
We also hosted a CALL group interview with Amy Sullivan, author of Opioid Reckoning: Love, Loss, and Redemption in the Rehab State (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), who did extensive research after her teenage child suffered from a substance use issue. Sullivan suggested that we need to pull together people from diverse backgrounds and experiences — policymakers, grassroots advocates, and the broader public — to have conversations with people who have worked on solutions with a primary question:
“You have created something for those who were not being cared for in your community. How can we all come together?”
She added: “We often do not treat people who are seeking help for a drug addiction with empathy. We treat them with judgment and scorn. When someone has lupus or cancer, we do not say they are failing at that disease if they go out of remission or need more chemo. Yet when someone has a relapse, suddenly they are no longer successful in recovery, even though it is the same type of thing. It is a disease. It is not a personal failing.”
Who Is in My Backyard?
Getting supportive housing built in Minnesota has not been easy — and the difficulty extends beyond funding.
In 2014, Golden Valley’s city council rejected a day mental health facility for children after some residents complained it would lead to security issues. In 2018, Forest Lake residents rejected a $20 million psychiatric residential treatment facility for children. Recently, Dakota County turned down $10 million in funding to build a homeless shelter in the community because residents were concerned about potential crime, drug use, and lowered property values.
Sue Abderholden, director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, told us in a 2022 article, “The YIMBY vs. NIMBY Movement,” that many mental illnesses are identifiable between the ages of 14 and 24, but go untreated because of the lack of options for families. In the end, the criminal system often takes over instead of having a health care response to mitigate mental illness.
Abderholden called a press conference in 2014 after Golden Valley’s rejection of the day mental health facility (a decision that was later rescinded after additional public outcry). She pointed out: “One in five children lives with a mental illness. They are already living in Golden Valley and the surrounding communities. They live in every neighborhood, attend every school, worship at every faith community, play at every park. These innocent children have an illness, and they should not be subject to nor denied treatment because of the misinformed fears of adults.”