In March, Damōn 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 and confirmed by the City Council to replace longtime commissioner Gretchen Musicant, who retired at the end of 2021.
Raised in poverty, Chaplin discovered his calling in public health after the deaths of his parents. He most recently served as director of the health department in New Bedford, Mass., a seaside city of 101,000.
Chaplin pursued the Minneapolis post after realizing what he describes as "an alignment of mission and values" among Frey, other city leaders and himself. "Substance abuse 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, which included a task force and funding boosted by several grants. He also served on a statewide advisory board on opioid settlement funds.
He wants to bring to Minneapolis some of the strategies that worked in New Bedford.
"The task force is already here — just making sure it's locally focused," Chaplin said. "Developing an asset map of the assets that we have: treatment centers, recovery centers, developing a community advisory board of folks who are using, or have used, or are attached to someone who has used.
"And then once we develop those asset maps, develop strategies around the three-legged stool, which is recovery centers, treatment centers and drop-in centers."
What should be done with opioid settlement funds due to Minneapolis? First, hire a consultant to take stock of what's needed, he said.
Coordinating with Hennepin County's continuum of care approach will be critical to reducing homelessness in Minneapolis, said Chaplin, who was raised in public housing projects in the poor Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
The ultimate goal, he said, is moving toward "functional zero, which is a space where homelessness becomes rare and non-recurring."
Chaplin has studied the approach of Bergen County, N.J., which claims to be approaching functional zero via a single 24/7 facility that provides shelter beds and mental health and substance abuse services — "kind of the Taj Mahal ... of homelessness with dignity."
Would he push for that here? "That's a model that's out there," Chaplin said. "I have not spoken to anyone at the county yet."
What about encampments?
"There's no one-size-fits-all," he said. "You have to have a public health approach to how you deal with encampments, whether it's talking to the folks who just don't want to see them or ... the folks who want to just leave folks alone. The easy answer is you need to engage with the people who are there. ...
"I think it's really important that you think about when you're removing folks as an eviction. For some of those folks, it is their home."
After the pandemic emerged, Chaplin said, "We began to see the disparities of outcomes associated with COVID, and we learned a lot of things from COVID around communications, outreach, education, leadership development — how do we really engage with our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] communities in a way that's effective and meaningful?
"From COVID, we began to really focus on equity. Different reasons here, but the strategies are similar. We began to develop this cultural health and pro-equity movement ... a series of trainings we provided for all staff in the department. We expanded that to the community."