Aspen House provides emergency housing for Dakota County youth – Star Tribune | Wonder Mind Kids

Youth in crisis now have a safe and comfortable place to stay in Dakota and Washington counties.

Aspen House, a 12-bed shelter in Mendota Heights, opened about three weeks ago and has welcomed the first youth from both counties. Operated by the nonprofit Nexus Family Healing, the short-term facility offers on-site services and activities to help youth ages 12-18 deal with family issues or their own mental health needs.

Juveniles can stay in the shelter, which is in a residential area, for up to 90 days if they receive child protection services but cannot find foster care, if they are dealing with mental health issues that do not warrant hospitalization, or if they are too familiar with the justice system do but not require a locked facility, Dakota County officials said.

The shelter does not accept walk-ins; Juveniles must be referred by child protection workers, juvenile correctional staff, or the after-hours crisis response unit, said Shannon Gibson, a Dakota County social worker.

“There was no such safe place for them that met their needs,” Gibson said. “It’s very disturbing for the kids… to be removed [from their home] and not being able to continue with school, not being able to stay connected with their community, having to drop out of therapy.

Gibson said that in the past, young people who needed a place to stay might have been sent far from home, hospitalized, or ended up in a detention center rather than a place like Aspen House.

The shelter fills a gap in community mental health services for young people, replacing the Harbor Shelter in Hastings which was privately owned and closed in 2019.

“[Filling such gaps] is the primary reason we were called to this ministry,” said Nicole Mucheck, executive director of Minnesota Community Services for Nexus Family Healing.

Aspen House is unique because of the variety of community partners that came together to create it, including law enforcement, the local school district, hospitals, county officials and even the building’s neighbors, Mucheck said.

Teens can receive diagnostic evaluations and group, family, and individual therapy from licensed on-site psychologists. There are also educational services — two staff members who teach the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan District curriculum to the youth each day, as well as social and recreational activities.

The youth at Aspen House come from challenging environments “far beyond what the average child experiences,” said Errol Rubenstein, who, with the help of an education advisor, teaches students four core subjects each day.

He said the Aspen House environment — which offers small classes and a structured schedule — helps the kids a lot. Activities like yoga and games are also built into the day, he said.

While Rubenstein has witnessed a student spill his coffee and slam a laptop onto the floor and refuse to work, most students are “incredibly awesome,” he said.

At Aspen House, caseworkers also schedule family visits and staff can coordinate online appointments with existing children’s providers. And while the youth remain there, staff at the District and Aspen House are working to find a more permanent place for them, whether it’s retiring with family or going to foster care.

On a recent Thursday, seven teenagers sat in a common area and laughed while playing a game of charades with staff during their lunch break. They sat in comfortable chairs in front of a colorful tree mural.

Fahmo Hans is a psychotherapist at Aspen House and runs a ‘psychoeducational group’ for all residents five days a week. Topics for discussion include creating boundaries, she said, or challenging one’s core beliefs. Some children also receive individual therapy.

Hans said Aspen House is “unique” because of the caring and compassionate staff offerings.

“They are creative, they are receptive to change. They’re just very eager to learn too,” she said of youth. “You have a bright future ahead of you.”

The Aspen House building, a former group home, cost $850,000 and officials are allocating up to $1.5 million for improvements, a Dakota County spokeswoman said. Of that, Washington County contributed $400,000 and Dakota County covered the rest. Both counties used American Rescue Plan dollars.

Generally, each district pays a daily rate to Nexus Family Healing for the placements they do, although both districts have committed to funding a minimum number of beds to get started.

Dakota County Correctional Facilities Superintendent Brianna Hill said she hopes similar facilities will be created in the future — perhaps another shelter or detox center for juveniles.

“Twelve beds are never enough,” she said.

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