“Those people” are our neighbors

Sue Swain speaking at NAMI press conference. Also pictured, Sue Abderholden and Jill Wiedemann-WEst

Sue Swain speaking at NAMI press conference. Also pictured, Sue Abderholden and Jill Wiedemann-WEst

“In February 2009, I was desperate,” Sue Swain said. “My life was out of control and I needed help.” Already stressed by work and being a family caregiver, she now had to contend with a cancer diagnosis. The combination was too much to handle. But Swain found help at the Diane Ahrens crisis residence. During three days there, she ate nourishing meals, got help with managing prescriptions, and found counseling to deal with her burdens. Her short stay at the crisis residence, she says, was the “first and most critical step on my path to wellness.”

Swain told her story at a press conference supporting the crisis residence’s move from its current Hamline-Midway site to a former convent near White Bear Avenue. The St. Paul City Council might vote on the move on Wednesday, September 9 — or they might find some other excuse to delay the vote again. Last time they postponed the vote to investigate the number of parking spaces available. Of course, the city planning commission had already investigated thoroughly and approved the move and the residence plans to have even more off-street parking spaces than the planning commission asked for.

UPDATE October 9, 2015: The City Council approved the move, so the Diane Ahrens Crisis Center will open in its new location by May 1. Over at MinnPost, Andy Steiner interviews Jill Wiedemann-West about the crisis center and lessons from the process.

The real question here is not parking spaces, but fear. Some community members are afraid of people with mental illness. They are afraid of the crisis residence, despite People Incorporated’s long history of successfully running that residence and others.

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Jim McDonough, the Ramsey County Commissioner representing the East Side area where the residence will be located, is a strong advocate. At the press conference, he compared mental illness to kidney disease. “When someone goes on dialysis,” he said, “it’s a lifelong thing and they get support in their family and support in their community.” When someone gets mental illness, McDonough said, they need the same kind of support from the community.

“We have long since outgrown” the Hamline-Midway facility, Jill Wiedemann-West, CEO of People Incorporated explained. Though the new facility will have the same number of resident beds, it will have additional space for a commercial kitchen, for programming and for common areas.

Ben Ashley-Wurtmann, a policy and outreach associate for Mental Health Minnesota, said he found the objections to the center “disheartening,” especially the “excuse that there are schools nearby.”

“Some of those children are going home to families where there is an unaddressed mental health crisis,” he said, adding that “not providing a resource is the worst way to keep children safe from the effects of mental illness.”

Ashley-Wurtmann said that he wished a center like this had been available for him, when he was a young adult. Instead, when he was in crisis, “cops and medics showed up with lights and sirens on a quiet suburban street. My worst day became a very public piece of news,” and he was usually sent to an emergency room that didn’t have the resources to meet his needs. Nothing can keep mental illness out of a neighborhood, he said: the only question is how we respond.

“Fear, misinformation and discrimination are simply not good reasons” to oppose the crisis center, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota (NAMI). Mayor Chris Coleman has spoken out in support of the crisis center, as has council member Russ Stark.

“The help of everyone in that house was the turning point in my recovery,” Swain said. “More people need to be able to access crisis homes. It helped me and it can help them.”

Now is the time to contact council members and ask them to support the crisis center at Wednesday afternoon’s council meeting.

Here’s contact information for the council members:

Ward 1 Dai Thao 651-266-8610 email ward1@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 2 Dave Thune 651-266-8620 email ward2@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 3 Chris Tolbert 651-266-8630 email ward3@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 4 Russ Stark 651-266-8640 email ward5@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 5 Amy Brendmoen 651-266-8650 email ward5@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 6 Dan Bostrom 651-266-8660 email ward6@ci.stpaul.mn.us
Ward 7 Bill Finney 651-266-8670 email ward7@ci.stpaul.mn.us

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