High and Dry

Seeking new management: 1800 Chicago
Michael Dvorak

Julie Nordmeyer is all too familiar with the travails of helping chronic alcoholics. As a case manager for the Minneapolis American Indian Center on East Franklin Avenue for the past two years, she has learned that it's the baby steps that hold out hope for leading her clients to sobriety, whether it be providing a hot breakfast for somlieone who has come in off the street, holding a hand when an individual battles withdrawal, or encouraging a person to go to treatment.

But for all the gain that comes with those small victories, Nordmeyer knows how easy it is for any client of the center to have a dramatic and dangerous relapse. For that, Nordmeyer says, she's grateful for the Hennepin County Detoxification Center at nearby 1800 Chicago Ave. S., where at least once a week she sends one of her clients.

"These are people that are coming from very far behind, and fall to the lure of the streets and the lure of alcohol," Nordmeyer says. "It's not unusual to find someone from here collapsed or unconscious out back. We've absolutely depended on that detox service."

The future of the detox center, however, is in limbo. For six years the Salvation Army has provided staff to oversee 40 detox beds at 1800 Chicago, a county-owned building that houses several social services, as well as 19 additional detox beds at its Harbor Lights Center on Currie Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. On May 29, the Salvation Army's Lt. Col. David Grindle hand-delivered a letter to Bob Olander, director of the Chemical Health Division of Hennepin County's Children, Family and Adult Services Department, announcing that the Army would not renew its current $2.2 million contract to run the detox facility when it expires on December 31.

"It wasn't what you would call a surprise surprise, because about a year ago the issue came to the table," Olander says. "But it's still somewhat of a surprise in that they simply told us that they are reorganizing the mission, with no further explanation." The lapsed contract is only the latest in a series of flare-ups in the county's relationship with the 136-year-old religious mission. (See "Dim Bulb," June 21, 2000, and "Safe Harbor?" May 9, 2001.)

The Salvation Army is maintaining that it simply wants out of the detox business. "This isn't where our expertise lies, and this isn't where we want our energies to be," says Annette Bauer, public-relations director for the nonprofit. "We still want to ensure that there is the best care possible in the city. We are confident that [Hennepin County] is not going to have a problem finding someone to fulfill that goal." The organization, she says, will continue to operate detox facilities in other cities.

Labor organizers don't buy that explanation and instead charge that the agency is hoping that by getting out of the detox business, it will rid itself of what is believed to be the only unionized group within the Army's 43,000-member workforce nationwide. Under the Army's administration, the organizers note, the detox program has been plagued by shaky employee relations and high staff turnover. And last year, about 50 workers at the detox center joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The recent history of detox services in Hennepin County is anything but smooth. In 1992 accusations surfaced that American Indian clients were being abused by Hennepin County workers. (One-third to one-half of the clients at 1800 Chicago are Native American.) At that time the county managed the detox facilities itself. As a result, the county was cited for multiple state health-department violations and surrendered its detox license. So the county hired an outside agency, New Visions, to run the facility. New Visions, however, was often over budget and eventually went out of business.

In 1995 the Salvation Army took over but quickly began squabbling with the county over budget issues. In 1998 county officials learned that off-duty police officers who were hired to provide security at the center weren't fulfilling their shifts, and cut the nonprofit's $2.5 million detox budget by $90,000 the following year. As a result, in 1999 the agency instituted a series of cost-cutting measures that forced nurses to perform more security duties. Army administrators also abruptly fired the longtime detox service coordinator, Shar Benson, who had objected to the changes.

Most recently, in January 2000, the Army tried to temporarily close the facilities at 1800 Chicago while the building underwent asbestos removal; a move that would have led to the layoff of about 80 employees. The county's Olander eventually convinced the Army to keep the facilities open during the renovation.

The employees' concerns about the potential shutdown, job security, working conditions, long hours, and low wages prompted them to unionize. The Salvation Army reacted coolly to the idea, according to Linda Cobb, the business representative for the union's Council 14. "It was a difficult negotiation period, because the Salvation Army had never had a union," she allows.

Cobb is reluctant to accuse the nonprofit of dumping the detox contract in order to get rid of the union and its 50-plus members. "I don't want to put any negative slants on it at this time," she admits. "It's pretty much our goal that the workers will stay with the Salvation Army. At this point, we are also hoping the county finds the right service provider."

For her part, the Army's Bauer flatly denies that the unionization was a factor in the organization's decision to drop its detox services, but she concedes that the agency has had trouble finding enough qualified workers to staff the facility.

At the very least, Olander says, the county won't be entirely without detox services. The Missions Inc. detox center in Plymouth has 22 beds. And though Olander hopes to find a vendor to manage as many as 55 beds at 1800 Chicago (the increase would cover the loss of beds at the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights Center), he has also been mulling over the possibility of a "tri-county deal" in which Hennepin County would share the 50 beds in Ramsey County and 62 beds in Dakota County, which are used by several other counties and administered by a private agency.

Last month Olander sent a memo to the Hennepin County commissioners outlining his department's requirements for a detox provider. The potential administrators must have experience in handling detox cases, be able to manage 50 beds, provide or coordinate with an ambulance service and be ready to operate on January 1, 2002. All of this, Olander recognizes, is no small order. But he hopes to have a list of candidates very soon.

"We damn well better get on this," Olander says. "I mean, you can say government is government and these things take time, but we've got just a few months to dial it in."

The American Indian Center's Nordmeyer has concerns beyond the basic guidelines the county has for a vendor, whoever it turns out to be. For one, she opines that having detox workers who can handle the "medical, psychological, and emotional effects" of alcohol abuse and withdrawal is crucial for her clients. For another, she's worried that if the county's detox services land somewhere other than 1800 Chicago, transportation could be a problem. "This area, in the city, definitely needs the beds," she insists. "I would have serious misgivings if we were to lose that facility the way that it is. It would be a big problem."

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