Mental health resources dwindle as the APOLLO Resource Center closes its doors

Funding cuts hit Minnesota's long-standing drop-in center

On a recent morning in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, in the basement of a tall brick apartment building, a few people lounge in the worn leather chairs at the APOLLO Resource Center. The center doesn't have the sterile white aesthetic of a treatment hospital. Billed as a "drop-in center," it's more like a fraternity house for the mentally ill. It's the only mental health drop-in center in all of Ramsey County, and acts as a second home for many of its regulars.

"Hey, you got that 50 bucks you owe me?" asks one, a slender man with graying hair, grinning slyly. "I'm practicing for the carnival."

Around the corner from the lounge area, there's a kitchen where clients take cooking classes and regularly prepare feasts together. Down the hall is a session room where they participate in group therapy and community classes. Next door is a laundry room with space for group meetings and bingo night.

As the only drop-in facility in Ramsey County, the APOLLO center has been a crucial resource for many in the community
Jayme Halbritter
As the only drop-in facility in Ramsey County, the APOLLO center has been a crucial resource for many in the community
The APOLLO center helped Lynne Nerenberg stay on medication
Jayme Halbritter
The APOLLO center helped Lynne Nerenberg stay on medication

Unlike at an inpatient hospital, attendance at the APOLLO is voluntary, and the dozens of people who come through its doors daily run the spectrum of mental illnesses. Some come to attend group sessions for chemical dependency, anger management, or job training classes. Others come simply to socialize with someone experiencing similar inner pain.

"It's some place where you can be that's not home," explains Taz Korlath, a regular. "Some place where you can sit down and talk to people, like a coffee shop."

But the APOLLO center won't be around much longer. In January, Ramsey County announced it would redirect the center's funding to other resources. After more than 36 years, the APOLLO will forever close its doors on May 1. And in these final weeks, the regulars are trying to figure out what they will do when it's gone.

"It's breaking my heart," says Shelly Clater, a client for more than 15 years. "I'm still coming to grips with it."

In the aftermath of mass shootings in Tucson, Newtown, and Accent Signage in Minneapolis, the subject of mental illness has been thrust to the forefront of the political debate, both statewide and nationally. Yet in Minnesota, mental health funds continue to get the axe.

Most recently, DFL lawmakers in the House proposed $150 million in cuts to the Health and Human Services Budget — which funds the state's health care programs, including mental health — a surprising move that has spurred behind-the-scenes turmoil at the Capitol.

"My jaw was on the floor for a whole day after I heard the House target," says Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "Nobody saw it coming. None of the advocates. None of the long-term providers."

Surprising as it was, these cuts are nothing new. In 2011, when Republicans ran the show, legislators eliminated $1.2 billion from health and human services, draining millions from mental health resources. Over the past four years, legislators have cut nearly $60 million to programs designed to help people with mental illness, according to data tracked by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"I'm sure we'll see more money cut in the mental health system," says Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI. "They do it every year."

As a result of these cuts, providers have been forced to sacrifice crucial mental health resources, including the Community Behavioral Health Hospital-Cold Spring and the adult mental health residential facility in Eveleth.

But mentally ill clients don't just disappear when the programs do. They end up entering the system in other ways, such as hospitals and jails, which means losing these facilities ends up costing the state more money in the long term, says Philip Krasowski, a nurse at the psychiatric wing of Hennepin County Medical Center who works as a liaison to civil commitment court.

"You have to be careful where you're headed, because it might drive people to more expensive alternatives, and not be very effective," says Krasowski.

On top of downsizing or eliminating resources, these ongoing budget cuts make it hard to keep on staff for the long haul, says Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, who chairs the Health and Human Services Finance committee in the House.

"Basically, the people that work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities are getting 10 to 11 bucks an hour," says Huntley. "They haven't had raises for a long time, and the result is they can go make more money at McDonald's."

During a monthly group meeting in January, the APOLLO staff broke the news to clients: The facility will continue its independent-living skills program, but funding for the center will be redirected toward a new job placement service.

The move is representative of a trend in mental health funding, says Tim Burkett, CEO of People Inc., the nonprofit that runs APOLLO. As public funds continue to diminish, money frequently goes to programs with "measurable objectives." As a result, organizations like People Inc. are forced to spend more money on accountants to keep the books, and programs with harder-to-quantify success like the APOLLO are disappearing.

"This is the wave of the future, so I can't resist it," says Burkett.

Many of the regulars didn't take the news well, says Katie O'Brien, community support services division head for People Inc. "It's almost like a grieving process," O'Brien says. "There was a whole range of emotions of anger, sadness, frustration, disbelief."

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