Polaris House offers ‘a place to belong’

Local oganization works alongside those with mental illness

Bruce Van Dusen, executive director of Polaris House, right, and staff member Levi LeCount give a tour of Polaris House on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Polaris House is a clubhouse community dedicated to recovery of people with mental illness. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Bruce Van Dusen gets frustrated sometimes.


Van Dusen is the Executive Director of Juneau’s Polaris House, an organization that works with those struggling with mental illness. He sees the effect that organizations such as Polaris House have on the local population dealing with mental illness and is trying to find ways to alert people of those services.

“I go down to South Franklin and I talk to folks that are homeless and I say, ‘Look, whenever you’re ready, we’ve got services,'" Van Dusen said. “‘We can get you housed. We can get you medical care, we can get you on the road to whatever you need, really. It’s here.’ The thing that can frustrate me a little bit is they say no, repeatedly. Over and over.”

There are a variety of reasons for this, Van Dusen acknowledges. Every person is different and wants to approach his or her challenges differently, but after seeing the way Polaris House has helped dozens of people over the three and a half years that he’s been involved, he’s looking to find ways to get the word out.

Collaborating in the community

Polaris House, which has been operating in Juneau since 2002, is all about collaboration and engagement. There are more than 400 members, and staffers work along with them to help find housing, succeed at work, get medical service and more. There’s a focus on working with those with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, and Van Dusen said Polaris House gives people “a place to belong.”

The organization has been involved with multiple efforts to reduce homelessness in Juneau, including the new Housing First initiative. Housing First will supply beds and care for chronic inebriates when it opens in July, and Polaris House has put five of its members on the waiting list for Housing First.

Polaris House has formed relationships with various local landlords and businesses, helping its members find affordable housing or jobs with a good deal of success.

“Currently, we have no active members who are homeless,” Van Dusen said. “Isn’t that nice? It’s excellent. More and more people are getting jobs and working.”

There isn’t a firm definition of “active” members, but staff member Steve Wilson said there are probably between 15 and 20 people who come in on any given day. Some drop by almost every day, but there are others who come in every few days or every couple weeks.

The office, located at Willoughby Place, serves as a hangout area during the day, being open 365 days a year. It was recently accredited as a part of Clubhouse International, Inc., which runs more than 320 similar programs in 30 countries. Those involved with Polaris House usually refer to the space as the clubhouse instead of as an office.

Lunch is available every day at the clubhouse for $2, and breakfast is served on Wednesdays. With the exception of Van Dusen, staff members carry the title of “generalist,” meaning that they do a little bit of everything and are all on equal footing.

One of those staff members is Levi LeCount, who recently joined the staff on a part-time basis. LeCount was a member for around two years prior to joining the staff, and said the way the Clubhouse organization puts the power in the hands of the members is refreshing.

“For me personally, it helped in a big way,” LeCount said. “I’m from down south, so I’d never seen a program like Clubhouse. I was in Nevada before I got here, and there’s no programs that are not clinical. It’s not, ‘Come here, get your case plan, follow your case plan and leave.’ When you come into the clubhouse, you decide what you feel like you’re going to do that day and what tasks you can handle that will make the clubhouse run better.”

Looking to grow

This past Friday afternoon, members cycled in and out leisurely, chatting and laughing about their activities of the day. At 1 p.m., Wilson led a small meeting where members discussed the day’s chores after they cleaned up that day’s lunch — tacos for Cinco de Mayo. When one member didn’t want to be on trash duty that day, another one quickly volunteered.

Everything was civil and respectful, which has become the norm at Polaris House. When Van Dusen first arrived in August of 2013, police were visiting Polaris House five or six times a month to help resolve a dispute or to escort a violent person away. In 2016, the police came by just three times. So far this year, police have been involved just once.

The meeting took just three and a half minutes, with Wilson recording everyone’s chores on the large whiteboard on the wall of the common area. It was a bit of a slow day, Wilson said. The previous day, however, Van Dusen had talked about how he’s begun to look into a larger space because of the growth of the program.

The space on Willoughby is good for now, and centrally located, but as the program adds staff and members, it will need a new location. Van Dusen hopes the membership numbers keep growing, and that he can get more of the downtown population to come to the Clubhouse. Whether someone struggling from mental illness needs housing, job advice, help with medical paperwork or other services, Polaris has the resources to find help.

“It’s not for everyone,” Van Dusen said, “but for the ones that we do serve, it’s very robust and it has everything in it.”



• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com or 523-2271.




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