Fighting for those who can't

Former Juneau resident honored for advocacy work for the mentally ill

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

Former Juneau resident Heather Barr, one of the nation's leading advocates for prisoners with mental illness, was recently selected as one of only four international recipients for the 12th Annual Reebok Human Rights Awards.

Barr, who was born and raised here, will be honored along with another American and two Africans during a ceremony next Wednesday in Boston.

As a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center in Manhattan, Barr has sued the city for failing to provide access to treatment plans and adequate services for people with mental illness who are released from jails.

"This would not be such a tragedy if it were easy to obtain mental health services in New York, but the truth is that people with mental illness seeking help in this city often find every door shut," Barr said in an opinion piece in Wednesday's New York Daily News.

Her "Giuliani Can't Win War on Mentally Ill" column concludes with her telling the mayor that millions of people will be watching how he deals with the 30,000 inmates with mental illness who are released from New York City jails each year.

Barr, who was born in Juneau, attended one year of high school here before moving at the age of 15 to travel and pursue her education.

Her parents, Lou and Nancy Barr, still live in Juneau.

Her father was born in Brooklyn, and the family often visited relatives there. Barr was always hungry to return to the Big Apple.

"I think I was in love with New York from a young age," the former Juneau resident said this week from her office on Broadway.

Barr became aware of the problems the mentally ill face as a volunteer at a homeless shelter for women while earning her master's degree in criminal justice at John Jay College. While attending law school at Columbia University, Barr worked for public defenders and quickly realized all her defendants suffered from mental illness.

"My clients were some of the saddest people you could ever imagine," Barr said. "I learned there were so many cracks and floors in the system of how New York City fails to provide for poor people with disabilities."

Barr, 30, was also the recipient of a Do Something BRICK Award last year. The award, sponsored in part by Rolling Stone Magazine, honors young Americans who help builder better communities.

The BRICK award also included a $10,000 grant. Reebok will contribute $50,000 to its four winners and the human rights organizations of their choice.

"I don't get too excited about the awards but since I have to raise my own salary, the money will be an enormous help in sustaining the work we're doing," said Barr, who joined the Urban Justice Center after graduating from Columbia in 1997.

Last year she cofounded the Nathaniel Project, the nation's first alternative to incarceration for felony offenders with serious mental illness. The program gives judges the option of sentencing defendants to mental health services rather than prison.

The Nathaniel Project has served as a national model for other programs.

"There's no question that a parent is proud of their child doing good things and helping people out," her mother said.

Heather Barr has only been back to Juneau twice in the past 15 years. Her parents visit her each year in New York.

"It's a big plus to be able to say I'm from Alaska," Barr said. "It's certainly more interesting than saying you're from Long Island or New Jersey."

Barr speaks throughout the country on behalf of the poor, homeless and mentally ill. At one conference, she met a woman who works for a mental health organization in Anchorage.

"It made me think of the Glory Hole and growing up as a kid in Juneau," she said. "Clearly this is not just a New York City issue.

"The biggest reason people are on the streets and in jails, whether it's New York or Juneau, is that there's not enough housing for poor people. And many people are poor because they're unable to work because of psychiatric disabilities."

Mike Sica can be reached at

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