A relic of mental illness becomes a neighborhood fixture

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November 3, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie and Scott Russell
Sarah McKenzie and Scott Russell

Elliot Park's Andrew Residence is the state's largest facility exclusively for people with mental illness.

To some, Andrew Residence, a 212-bed Downtown treatment facility for people with mental illness, is a relic. The 30-year-old supportive housing facility in Elliot Park predates a statewide effort to move people with mental illnesses into smaller, community-based housing arrangements that provide more independence.

While some detractors consider Andrew a large, imposing community presence, it also has supporters.

John Rischmiller (pictured above), a former resident who now lives semi-independently in a high-rise just south of Downtown, said he sometimes contemplates what his life would be like if he returned to Andrew.

Independent living can be difficult and isolating, Rischmiller said, referring to his current housing arrangement.

The 42-year-old has cerebral palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, borderline personality disorder and depression; he relies on a wheelchair and occasionally uses crutches to get around. He often takes a cab to Elliot Park to visit his old neighborhood and to stop at a liquor store or video store.

Not every alumnus agrees.

Bradley Engelson lives at an apartment building across the street from Andrew. He used to live at the facility.

"It was not for me," Engelson said, while sitting outside at a picnic table.

He said two to three people lived in a room. Few people talked to him, he said.

Steve Morice, Andrew's coordinator of residence services, echoed Rischmiller's thoughts. He said a larger facility could afford residents more opportunities to build friendships and serve as an antidote to the loneliness people with mental illnesses often experience.

He dismissed the notion that Andrew Residence -- the largest residence exclusively for people with a mental illness (outside of a crisis treatment center) -- is too big.

"Just like some people like to live in a small town, some people like to live in a suburban area, some people want to live Downtown in the skyways -- there's all kinds of different people," he said. "They should have some choices, just the way you and I have choices."

Hilary Greene, quality coordinator at Andrew, also pointed out another advantage to life at the supportive housing facility -- support from a large, multidisciplinary staff made up of nurses, social workers and counselors.

She said staff members work to help residents develop independent living skills. While some move on to their own apartments, most residents live at the facility for some time, she said.

Though the trend is toward smaller, supportive housing facilities, Greene said there are no plans to phase out Andrew Residence. She said it has received many awards.

Resident surveys also give the place high marks, she said.

Quiet neighborsAndrew Residence, 1215 S. 9th St., is tucked behind Elliot Park's new, upscale housing development, East Village, and Augustana Health Care Center, a nursing home.

It sits on the very edge of Downtown, isolated on two sides by a tangle of freeways.

Residents at the four-story facility come and go as they wish. Most walk to get around the neighborhood, while some take the bus.

About 80 percent of the residents at Andrew have schizophrenia. The brain disorder is often misunderstood. Many link it with notions of a "split personality" or violent behavior.

Instead, people with schizophrenia often have disordered thought patterns and a tendency to withdraw from the everyday world, through apathy or fear. Some, but not all, schizophrenics suffer fear-based hallucinations and delusions.

"Given the face value of the behavior of our folks, they are quiet, gentle neighbors," Morice said. "I have heard the stereotype, 'Oh, my gosh, mental illness -- could be violent, could be like those people in the cinema. But the rule is just the opposite. These folks are more vulnerable on the streets. We worry more about their concerns about being victimized."

First Precinct Crime-Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger said Minneapolis Police don't keep statistics on how often people with mental illness commit crimes, though officers can check off a box indicating the suspect appeared "disturbed" or to be a "vulnerable adult."

"Regarding Andrew Residence, my sense is that the vast majority of the mentally ill do not ever commit crimes," he said. "Or at least, a very small percentage of them might now and again be arrested for disorderly types of incidents, if it's not apparent to officers [that] there is a mental illness issue."

Others are put off by appearances.

Some residents walk down the street looking disheveled with unkempt hair and shabby clothing.

But most people living at Andrew don't talk to other passersby unless someone talks to them first.

"People have a fear of the unknown," Greene said.

Neighborhood interactionWhen asked recently by a couple of Skyway reporters about Andrew's presence in the neighborhood, Elliot Park residents responded with varying thoughts.

Many had never heard of the place and said they hadn't interacted with residents. One woman had a lot of critical remarks about Andrew Residence. She said she picks up their litter, adding that when her children were younger, they feared the residents.

At community gathering spots such as the East Village Market and the Dunn Bros on 11th Avenue South, people spoke highly of Andrew residents.

Ibrahim Ibrahim is a clerk at East Village Market, a shop owned by his father. He said he frequently interacts with people from Andrew. The shop, 1431 11th Ave. S., is just down the street from the housing facility.

Ibrahim said most of his exchanges are pleasant, although sometimes residents can get tense and mad.

He said that happens when residents appear to be off medication. They become somewhat disruptive and agitated in the store but then cool down, he said. Those incidents are rare, he said.

A few come into the shop four or five times a day. "Some people, I know what they want before they even ask for it," he said.

Jamaal Gilbert, a junior at the neighborhood's North Central University, works at Dunn Bros. He said the coffee shop used to have a janitor who lived at Andrew.

"He was great -- really friendly," Gilbert said.

A woman living at 1511 11th Ave. S., who wouldn't give her name, called Andrew Residence a negative presence. She's lived in Elliot Park since 1960.

"You can't sit outside. They will come and ask you for cigarettes or money," she said.

The woman used to live closer to Andrew and said she recalled people throwing TVs out the window. Some people jumped, too, she said. It doesn't happen anymore, she said -- because workers put bars on the windows.

The behavior is better now, she added, but her past experiences colored her view of Andrew.

Greene, an Andrew employee since 1979, said the program had installed window devices for resident safety.

"I would hesitate to call them bars," she said. "It sounds like we are keeping people in. They are protective devices so that the windows won't open too far. So people, if they were to become depressed or anxious, would not have their symptoms come out in a way they would try to injure themselves."

Greene also said that staff works to deter residents from asking people for money, behavior both unacceptable and unsafe for the resident.

Medications have improved since the program opened in 1973 and better control schizophrenic symptoms, she said.

Laura Thieret, an executive assistant who has lived at an apartment on 11th Avenue South for two-and-a-half years, said she talks to residents at the bus stop or the market.

"They are usually nice people." Thieret said. "I like the diversity."

Thieret admittedly had some reservations about Andrew Residence, though.

She said she decided against applying for a part-time job at Andrew for many reasons, including residents' appearance. She also knows someone with schizophrenia whom she describes as "weird" and violent. Her thoughts, however, were in some ways a collection of contradictions.

She also said, "I like this neighborhood. They add something to it."