Tasks Unlimited employs, houses mentally ill for 50 years

“Someone with a broken life is OK. It’s fodder for working out something new,” says Bruce Ario, a Loring Park author employed with Whittier-based Tasks Unlimited.

Every night in Loring Park, Bruce Ario writes one page of his next book, capping a day supervising mailrooms at the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Living with schizoaffective disorder, he’s worked for more than 30 years through Tasks Unlimited, a Whittier nonprofit that employs and houses people with mental illness. But there was a time he couldn’t hold a job.

“To me, the angel was my boss,” he said. “I think bosses thought I was insubordinate to them.”

“Many of our folks don’t have problems getting jobs; it’s keeping them. And that’s where we come in,” said Ashley Trepp, director of mental health services.

Even though Tasks Unlimited is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, staff say the organization at 2419 Nicollet Ave. still feels like a local secret. They’ve never done a big marketing push and referrals often come through word-of-mouth. But its reach is evident through janitorial contracts at local buildings and more than 20 metro-area “lodges” where clients live together, including one in Kingfield and one in Windom.

That reach is poised to grow. At a time when Wilder Research reports that 60% of homeless adults in Minnesota have serious mental illnesses, Tasks is stepping up homeless outreach through the new Northeast Outreach & Opportunity Center based at Elim Church. And it’s partnering on the Envision Community Project to design an affordable community of “tiny homes” in Minneapolis.

Most clients live with schizophrenia, major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, often working with Tasks Unlimited for many years. In 2018, the average length of employment was just over 10 years. 

The nonprofit was founded in 1970 by Dorothy Berger. Working as a social worker at Anoka State Hospital (formerly the state asylum for the insane), Berger filled in for a sick co-worker in 1968 to take a meeting with Dr. George W. Fairweather’s team.

Fairweather, who worked with veterans in California, was traveling the country touting his research. He found that people with serious mental illness are less likely to be hospitalized when they live and work together as a group, rather than individually, according to the Coalition for Community Living.

“Many people, even social workers, still say these patients can’t work, they’re too sick,” Berger said in 2010, as quoted in a University of Minnesota publication. “Be open. Not only be open to your opportunities but be open to the capacities of others and to the potential people have, even when it looks like they aren’t going to ever reach it.”

Berger died on Jan. 15 at the age of 95.

How it works

John Trepp, an author and the nonprofit’s former executive director, said the lodge model has a few key differences from a traditional group home. No staff live onsite. There is no time pressure to graduate and move on. And everybody works. The homes are designed to feel like a family.

“These are private residential homes. We are the landlord. But the people who live there, they run the show,” Ashley Trepp (John’s daughter-in-law) said.

A typical living arrangement is a duplex with three people living in each unit, each paying $350 in rent. 

 Residents pool money for groceries and share household chores like cooking and lawn care.  

The Fairweather model expanded to roughly 90 lodges in 16 states, but there was never a massive national adoption of the model. The most prevalent models are more staff-intensive, John Trepp said, and tend to support a goal of graduating out of a group home and living independently. 

“We have this American mentality that everybody is supposed to live by themselves,” he said.

When Tasks was founded in 1970, the city didn’t have many rules about group homes, he said. But by the time he joined the staff in 1978, he had 30 days to respond to a court order to close or relocate all five Minneapolis lodges, some of which were deemed too close together in North Minneapolis. And in the early ’80s, state licensing officials challenged the facilities as understaffed. 

The nonprofit survived, and current funding comes from medical insurance billing; grants from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Hennepin County and Dakota County; client rents and client program fees; building employment contracts; and grants from foundations and individual donors. Tasks Unlimited’s training center has an active license from DHS with no restrictions, although the facility received corrective orders this year related to adequate documentation and client assessments. 

“Most folks come to us because they want to work,” Ashley Trepp said.

Tasks Unlimited Building Services serves as an employer with contracts for janitorial and mailroom services. Pay is partially subsidized by the nonprofit and starts at minimum wage, plus health benefits, with opportunities for pay increases and full-time employment. 

If someone doesn’t show up for work, staff will figure out why and try to fix the problem, whether it be cash for transportation, an increase in symptoms or depression that makes it hard to get out of bed. Psychiatric consultations are available on a weekly basis, meaning clients are seen much more quickly than typical wait times of up to three months. 

Bruce Ario’s story

Bruce Ario grew up taking Washburn High School classes taught by his father, the legendary teacher Frank Ario. Shortly after graduating from college in 1978, he was racing a friend downtown at 55 miles per hour when he skidded and crashed into a traffic signal, hitting his head on the windshield. Driving drunk, he fled the scene and didn’t see a doctor. 

“People kept telling me, ‘That’s exactly when you started having problems,’” he said. 

Bruce Ario stresses the importance of education in his life. “I think my contribution to humanity is as good as anybody’s,” he says.

Within a week, he said, an angel appeared to him at Minnehaha Falls. He believed Bob Dylan and others on television were singing about him personally. While tending bar and attending law school, he was struggling to concentrate and trying to integrate the angel he saw into everyday life. He became homeless for a six-month period in the mid-’80s, using his student ID to sleep in an auditorium and shower at the law school. After surrendering his key to school officials, he felt panicked. 

At a low point in 1984, he took off his clothes during the noon rush in the skyway, thinking that others might follow suit and create a modern-day Garden of Eden. He was arrested, declared incompetent by a judge and sent to a halfway house.

Because he was struggling to hold a job, one social worker recommended that he try working at Tasks Unlimited. Ario initially resisted. 

“Blue collar sounds like a step backward,” he said at the time. “[The social worker said], ‘Yeah, but it might be your only hope.’”

So Ario joined the training center, and went on to work as a janitor at General Mills and live in a lodge with other clients. After years feeling he had to suppress his illness and get well, he discovered he didn’t have to explain himself to his roommates. 

“They just carried on,” he said. “They had an illness, but they could do what they were required to do to get through the day, normal daily tasks. They took care of themselves.”

A dilemma with work always bothered him: “God is your boss, and some bosses want your heart and soul,” Ario said. But if he became insolent, his boss at Tasks cut him some slack.

“Other bosses would have said, ‘You’re done,’” he said.

Now a supervisor, Ario earns $20 per hour plus benefits, and keeps his own apartment.

“A lot of people still think mental illness is this deep dark secret,” he said. “Everybody deals with these things, we just have more of it, it’s just an overwhelming amount. And at some point you cross the border and they call you mentally ill. … Someone with a broken life is OK. It’s fodder for working out something new.” 

The author of several novels, Ario signed books at the Calhoun Village Barnes & Noble last summer to promote his 2019 title, Everyone is a Star.

“You can run these tapes in your mind forever about how tragic your life is, until you just stop it. Stop the tape and start talking positive,” he said. “I think my contribution to humanity is as good as anybody’s.”

His forthcoming book is about the potential to rebound from any tragedy or mental illness.

“That recovery is possible,” he said.