Robin and Tom Slack were at their son's wedding when they heard that the Stevens Square Nursing Home would close on August 13. Tom's mother Mona, elderly and suffering from Alzheimer's, would have to find somewhere else to live. Tom and Robin were distraught. After all, they had moved Mona from Vermont to place her at Stevens Square in June of 2002.
Hearing the news, Minneapolis resident Tom says, "was like getting sucker punched; I was stunned. I just kept thinking, 'How could this be?'" The Slacks would have to scramble to find somewhere else for Mona to live, but she was lucky in one respect. Many of the residents of Stevens Square have no family to speak of.
Administrators at the nursing home announced on June 13 that the home would close. Moving in was Minnesota Teen Challenge, a substance abuse rehabilitation center with close ties to the Assemblies of God, the world's largest Pentecostal organization. Stevens Square has been operating on 32nd Street and First Avenue in Minneapolis since 1881, when it was founded as the Children's Home Society.
The home gradually became a residential care facility catering specifically to elderly women. Stevens Square, with its afternoon teas, garden parties, and dedicated staff, was renowned for the quality of life it provided. Technically, there are enough beds in the metro area to house the elderly, but the standard of living provided to 57 women by Stevens Square represents a quality of life that is hard to attain in larger nursing homes--which increasingly are the only options left.
The imminent demise of Stevens Square has forced both staff and residents to consider rapid relocation. However, the fate of Stevens Square can hardly be considered an anomaly in these times of government cutbacks. In Minneapolis alone, twelve nursing homes have been closed in the last two years. Funding for both facility residents and staff are dependent on state-controlled Medicaid rates, but in Minnesota, there has been no increase in Medicaid rates for the last two years and no cost-of-living adjustments. Money for care is falling short.
Additionally, Minnesota is unique in that Medicaid levels determine private pay rates--meaning that nursing homes can't charge more to patients who are paying out of their own pockets. During the current legislative freeze, liability insurance rates have risen by 70 percent, driving the measures of profitability at nursing homes within the metro area to negative 1 percent. "How can you perpetuate a system that sets rates that are too low to pay for the cost of care and forbids nursing homes from charging a rate that is able to cover the cost of care?" asks John Hustad of the Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance. Even though a proposal by Gov. Tim Pawlenty during this year's legislative session to cut rates further was unsuccessful, the earliest chance at increased funding will be the 2005 session.
Teen Challenge, on the other hand, is expanding rapidly both nationally and here at home. Minnesota Teen Challenge began leasing space in Hudson House, an auxiliary building on the Stevens Square grounds, in 1992, and will use the main building to expand. Touted as a successful alternative to secular rehabilitation centers, Teen Challenge uses Christian teachings to assist in the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism.
The timing of two neocon movements--starving government services while lining the pockets of Christian social organizations--couldn't be better for the nonprofit. Since arriving in office, George Bush has consistently pushed for changes in the federal regulations regarding funding for faith-based social-service programs. Teen Challenge is often cited as an example of a nonsecular program that produces results, so much so that Henry Lozano of California Teen Challenge sat with First Lady Laura Bush during the last State of the Union address. During U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's confirmation hearing, it was said in his defense that as a senator he "sponsored...legislation that will stop the government from trying to close [Teen Challenge] down because they don't have trained professionals as drug counselors." Ashcroft currently serves on the Teen Challenge national board of directors (in fact, the organization has long had ties with conservative politicians; see "The Lord's Own Safety Net," 11/15/95).
In Minnesota, Governor Pawlenty is a strong supporter of faith-based institutions. At last year's convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, he advocated God as a solution for many social problems, adding that "if you're going to change destructive behavior, you've got to change hearts. Governors can't do that." Mary Pawlenty, the governor's wife, sits on the Minnesota Teen Challenge board of directors.
On July 6, changes in federal law allowed faith-based organizations to compete with secular organizations for access to funding. Furthermore, Teen Challenge's chemical dependency program received a state license in 2001, making it already eligible for government grants. Because Teen Challenge receives funding from the state as a drug rehabilitation center, budget cuts have hardly affected its operations and further government assistance will come once the new funding rules go into effect. Terry Plath, the director of development at Minnesota Teen Challenge, expresses no concern for the Stevens Square residents. Instead, he sees the expansion of its facilities into the space formerly occupied by the nursing home as an opportunity to provide additional services for the organization's clientele.
Stevens Square residents and their families are not so optimistic about their situation. By the year 2030 there will be a 90 percent increase in the portion of the populace over the age of 85. If the current nursing home trend continues, the state of Minnesota will be short of beds for an increasingly aged and needy population. It will be a problem that even God won't be able to solve.