In March, Damon Chaplin moved to Minneapolis from Massachusetts to become the city’s first new health commissioner in 20 years.
Chaplin, 50, was nominated by Mayor Jacob Frey to replace longtime City Council commissioner Gretchen Musician. Retired at the end of 2021.
Raised in poverty, Chaplin discovered his calling in public health after the death of his parents. Recently 101,000 in New Bedford, Mass. He served as the director of the health department.
Chaplin pursued the Minneapolis Post after realizing what he described as an “alignment of mission and values” between Frey, other city leaders and himself. “Substitution and homelessness and racial equity and those were areas that were important to the mayor,” he said in a recent interview.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, much of Chaplin’s work in New Bedford focused on implementing an opioid addiction plan that included a task force and funding supported by several grants. Served on the Statewide Advisory Board on the Opioid Settlement Fund.
He wants to bring some of the strategies that work in New Bedford to Minneapolis.
“The task force is already here — it’s just a matter of making sure it’s focused on the area,” Chaplin said. “Developing an asset map of the assets we have: treatment centers, rehabilitation centers, community advisory boards that are using or have used or associated with someone who has used.
“And once we develop those resource maps, develop strategies around the three-legged stools, which are recovery centers, treatment centers and drop-in centers.”
What should be done with the opioid settlement fund because of Minneapolis? First, there is the hiring of a consultant to assess what is required.
Chaplin, who grew up in public housing projects in Boston’s impoverished Roxbury neighborhood, said coordinating with Hennepin County’s continuum of care approach is critical to reducing homelessness in Minneapolis.
The ultimate goal, he said, is toward “practical zero, a place where homelessness is rare and infrequent.”
Chaplin studied Bergen County, N.J.’s approach, which is approaching Action Zero with a single 24/7 facility offering shelter beds and mental health and substance abuse services — “a Taj Mahal kind of … homelessness in glory.”
Will he push for that here? “That’s the model out there,” Chaplin said. “I haven’t told anyone in the county yet.”
What about neighborhoods?
“There is no one size fits all,” he said. “You have to have a public health approach to how you treat neighborhoods, whether it’s talking to people who don’t want to see them or … people who want to leave people alone. You’re the only answer. I have to talk to the people there…
“I think it’s important to think about when you’re evicting people. For some of those people, it’s their home.”
After the outbreak, Chaplin said, “We started to see the difference in outcomes associated with Covid, and we learned a lot from Covid in terms of communications, service, education, leadership development – how to deal with BIPOC.” [Black, Indigenous, people of color] Communities in an effective and meaningful way?
“From Covid, we really started to focus on equity. Different reasons here, but the methods are the same. We started to develop this cultural health and equity movement… We gave a series of trainings to all the employees in the department. We expanded it to the community.