As Executive Director of the Barbara Schneider Foundation, I have worked for years with law enforcement and mental health leaders trying to improve our mental health crisis response system and to put measures in place to prevent people from needlessly going through a mental health crisis.
Community members from all ethnic groups and neighborhoods have agreed with us that we must do a better job of responding to mental illness in our community. Repeated crisis responses by police, who are not mental health professionals, is an inadequate way to respond to the large number of community members who are struggling with mental illness.
Twenty-five percent of the population in our jails and prisons has a serious mental illness. There are hundreds of individuals struggling with chronic homelessness in Minneapolis alone. They suffer through inhumane conditions in shelters and on the street. Many are repeatedly arrested, sometimes dozens of times a year for loitering and other so- called crimes, even as they are not given an appropriate response to the illness they struggle with, year in and year out. It is gross discrimination against people based on a diagnosis. We can do better.
Earlier this year, I found myself frustrated after repeated attempts to try to meet with the downtown business community to explore what might be done to better deal with the growing number of mentally ill people experiencing homeless-ness. The County/City-created taskforce to Decriminalize Homelessness has documented the enormous overlap between those with no permanent address who are repeatedly arrested downtown and those who struggle with a mental illness. Police spend an enormous amount of their time dealing with these folks when they are neither social workers nor psychiatrists. The police should be dealing with the rising violence in our city, and human service and mental health professionals should deal with those who struggle with mental illness and homelessness. Our taskforce met with the police, the City Attorney and City Council members, but we were unable to get a meeting set up with downtown business leaders, even when we sought the assistance of the Mayor’s office.
It was at this point that I happened to run into Peter McLaughlin, our Hennepin County Commissioner representing the eastern half of Minneapolis, including most of Downtown. I told Peter what I hoped to do, and rather than a brush-off, Peter said, “I think I can help you.” In a few days, I was invited to attend a meeting Peter arranged with the Downtown Council, Hennepin County staff, and our Taskforce to Decriminalize Homeless-ness.
The meeting focused on those who struggle with chronic homelessness in downtown Minneapolis and what could be done to respond to their needs as well as the needs of the business community. Having all the parties at the table turned disagreements into productive discussion. It became clear that a stronger social service and mental health response to this population would free up police and court resources so they could more effectively respond to violent crime. These efforts could reduce the number of those who were perceived to be hanging around on the street and getting into trouble with business owners.
This meeting was the seed that McLaughlin nurtured into a major new initiative. At this very productive first meeting, we concluded that an on-going task force was needed to make the needed changes. On March 1, 2005, McLaughlin brought a resolution before the Hennepin County Board establishing a work-group “comprised of mental and chemical health professionals including representatives from mental health court, the Behavioral Health and Emergency Shelter Service Areas of the Hennepin County Human Services Department, the Minneapolis Public Health Department as well as community stakeholders including the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness and the Central Cities Neighborhood Partnership Restorative Justice Program.” The resolution passed on a 5-2 vote. The charge from the county board was to evaluate and recommend ways to better coordinate a response to the people in Downtown Minneapolis with unmet mental health needs.
Since then, the new Work-group has met three times, with Hennepin County Judge Richard Hopper presiding. We are known as the “Hopper Group.”
“As far as I’m concerned, when you’re looking at crime in Downtown, there are gaps in the social service fabric we need to plug so that we better control behavior and reduce crime,” said Judge Hopper, Presiding Judge of the Hennepin County Criminal Mental Health Court.
Judge Hopper is intent on finding concrete things we can change in both the criminal justice system and the mental health system in Hennepin County to improve our response to this population. He is getting all the suggestions out on the table before we focus on an agenda we can all support. Then we will all work together to start making the needed changes.
“This is another example of Peter McLaughlin delivering for persons with mental health disabilities,” said Margaret Hastings, a member of the Hopper Group and Director of the film, Illegal to be Homeless. “With no fanfare, Peter managed to create, via this work group, a chance for humane solutions to be put into place versus criminalization.”
“The Hopper Group is an excellent example of what can happen when leadership and collaboration come together at one table,” said Minneapolis Police Deputy Chief Sharon Lubinsky. “Through combined efforts, we are working to bring help to those affected, and make better use of our criminal justice resources.”
Many of us who have been working on these difficult issues feel we are finally getting traction. We’re making important changes so our response to those who struggle with mental illness and homeless-ness is more humane. Peter brought us all to the table, criminal justice, mental health, housing and advocacy. We have found a great ally in Peter McLaughlin, who has delivered concrete solutions to real problems over many years. The Hopper Group is breaking new ground and many of us advocates feel it’s just the beginning.