Why I Stepped Up With Neighbors to Say “Yes in My Backyard”

Thanks to Minnesota Housing for underwriting funds that enable us to spend time developing stories about housing needs and solutions. 

Jessica Mager in front of the construction of the new mental health facility in West Saint Paul. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

In November 2022, I read in our local newspaper that the construction of a mental health facility had been proposed for our neighborhood. Some of my neighbors quoted in the article, and one of the pastors at a nearby church, opposed it. That seemed strange to me. West Saint Paul is a great community. It feels like a small town in a way. As a strong spiritual person, social justice is a huge value of mine. Objections to the facility went against everything I believe in.

I have a friend who has been struggling with her autistic son, who is dealing with serious mental health issues — he was in the emergency room for quite a while. She eventually had to rent an Airbnb to house him and a mental health worker. I don’t know if the proposed mental health facility would even have a place for him, since he is a minor. Regardless, this kind of help is lacking in our society.

The neighborhood opposition didn’t make sense to me. I don’t appreciate the stigma against mental health. I have a loved one who struggles with it. I didn’t want our neighborhood to be the kind of place where a front of people fought against a welcoming, supportive facility. In my mind, it was a miracle that this place was going to be built. What the neighbors were objecting to seemed fear- based to me. Some of the comments in the article:

  • “We are committed to keeping our neighborhood a safe place. We feel this center would dramatically reduce security and safety in our community.”
  • “When there is someone in crisis, they don’t think clearly. It’s not their fault. But my mind goes to the 185 children on our [Crown of Life Lutheran Church and School] We all read the news, we know what they’re capable of doing.”
  • “I’m not biased, I’m not prejudiced. But I strongly feel they don’t belong in this neighborhood.”

The people in this 16-person facility would attend voluntarily; they would not be brought involuntarily and locked up. The more I read about the facility, the more I realized it offered a supportive environment: yoga classes, ways to learn how to deal with mental illnesses, staff to help with medications.

Some of the space would be for people in crisis, with staff to help them figure things out. They could go somewhere for hospitalization if they had more intense needs. The facility would help people avoid going to the hospital if they need a lower level of care. There would be an option for up to three months of residential treatment for patients to work through their conditions.

The center would be trauma informed, built to have a positive, cozy environment. Once inside, you would be able to see out in all directions, so you don’t feel cramped inside or locked in. Currently, a similar facility exists in South Saint Paul — but it is three old houses next door to each other, without the trauma-informed design.

After I read the newspaper story, I sent texts to several people. Two people reacted as strongly as I had. We got together about a week later and became a force. We designed a form letter that neighbors could use to send messsages to city council members, the mayor, and the Dakota County commissioner in our area. We talked about why we supported this facility. Women of West Saint Paul is a group busy in local activism and helped so much. It was an amazing effort.

The voices that oppose things tend to be loud, but we can’t sit back and be complacent. We need to get our voices out too.

Some of us prepared two-minute speeches for a city council meeting. We ended up having a ratio of four to one in support of the facility, compared to opposition. The city council vote was unanimously in favor.

What is difficult for me is that some of my neighbors opposed the construction. I love my neighbors and value them. Some of them came around to support the facility, but not all. I don’t like conflict. But I believe strongly in supporting the facility, so I had to speak up.

The groundbreaking for the new facility was October 3, 2023. The center should be finished this fall.