The first time she came to Meredith Hart House, a supportive housing program for women in recovery based in St. Paul, Coley Korolchuk was a deeply troubled 21-year-old looking for a healthy family and a place she could call home.
Traumatized by an abusive childhood and homeless on and off since the age of 13, Korolchuk turned to alcohol and cocaine to escape her pain. When an overdose landed her in the ER and then in the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (ADAP) at Regions Hospital, she worked hard to accept her addiction, understand its roots and focus on her recovery. As the end of her inpatient program at ADAP neared, Korolchuk learned that program graduates often moved to a sober house or another program for extra support in their recovery.
“Everybody at the program was talking about their next step,” she recalled. “They’d ask, ‘Where are you going to go after?’ ‘How do you plan on getting support?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I was so young and naive.”
Staff at ADAP suggested that Korolchuk consider Meredith Hart House. Located in a former convent just blocks away from the Minnesota State Capitol, Hart House is a program of Missions Inc., a Plymouth-based nonprofit with more than a century’s worth of history supporting people recovering from homelessness, domestic violence and addiction. This year Hart House is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Because she felt lost and afraid of falling back into addiction, Korolchuk agreed to go to Hart House. When she arrived at the sturdy brick building across from a large Catholic church, she was jarred by the realization that everyone there was focused on holding her up and supporting her recovery.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Korolchuck said, “so the support at Hart House was a shock. I hadn’t had a lot of support in my life before this, so to be surrounded by people that truly, truly cared for me — not only staff but also the other residents — was a strange feeling.” Once she got over the initial shock of living with a group of people focused on her well-being, Korolchuk settled into that good feeling and even began to feel like she deserved it.
“They got me through parts of my trauma I didn’t think I could ever make it through,” she said.
Katy Daniels, Missions Inc. executive director, said that before Hart House opened in November 2001, the building had been a treatment facility for young men and boys. When she was hired as Hart House’s first program manager, Daniels moved back to her home state of Minnesota from Washington, D.C., where she’d been running an emergency center for women experiencing homelessness and also working in a program for women with mental illness.
Daniels said that from the start she wanted Hart House to be different from other supportive housing programs.
“When we opened the program we had a vision of it being unique,” she said. “A lot of programs that focus on abstinence and follow a 12-step model tend to be invested in having people follow a certain path. They believe, ‘If you follow these steps you will achieve recovery.’” At Hart House, Daniels explained, “We look at it differently. I like to credit the first women that moved in with creating the program.”
Hart House is one of two Missions, Inc. programs that aren’t located on the nonprofit’s 38-acre campus in Plymouth. The building is located on a quiet street and has wide, grassy yard. It has 24 beds, with 10 double-occupancy rooms and four singles. Daniels emphasized that Hart House is not a treatment center. It is a supportive housing program for women, non-binary and transgender people who are working on recovery from substance use.
Unlike residents of sober housing, who pay a safety deposit and monthly rent, most Hart House residents’ living fees are covered by the state of Minnesota. “Supportive housing is housing that’s available to anyone who qualifies as having a disability,” Daniels explained. “Substance use disorder (SUD) is a qualifying disability. The program is funded through the state per diem.”
Daniels clarified that supportive housing fits into its own unique category separate from mainstream sober housing: “It Is not a halfway house,” she said. “It is more like a ‘three-quarter house,’ where someone needs that extra support. We’re able to provide that for them.”
The house is also different from regular sober housing because it offers more support to residents. “There are certain things we have to provide like medication reminders,” Daniels said. “We also have to have an RN or LPN available four hours a week.”
That extra support wraps around residents and helps make the house and the people who live in it feel more like a family, Daniels added: “We’re staffed 24 hours a day. Every resident has a goal plan. The role of the advocates that work with them is to help them identify their goals and help them achieve those goals, whatever that may look like. It might be dealing with physical health care issues or reuniting with family members or children or it might be help dealing with addiction issues. We are there to support them as they achieve those goals.”
No time limit
Korolchuck’s first stay at Hart House was not her last. Over the years, she has been a resident there three times, returning to the place she considers her true home when she’s relapsed, hit a low spot or is even felt frightened for her life. And even when she feels sober and settled, like she does these days, Korolchuck, 37, said she still returns to Hart House, to catch up, to have a holiday meal, or lead residents in a yoga class.
“I consider the people at Hart House my family,” she said. “When other people go home and see their family, I go to Hart House. That’s been my experience of home.”
One of the things Korolchuk appreciates most about staff and residents in the big brick building is their patient and forgiving approach to recovery.
“What sets Hart House apart is their understanding that healing is messy,” Korolchuk said. “People don’t change quickly from a lifetime of abuse, whether it’s societal abuse, drug abuse, or just plain disconnection. They understand that addiction is complicated with many components and the path to recovery takes a team.”
That team approach includes taking time to know where residents are at when they first more into the program, understanding that addiction often has its roots in deep trauma, and giving women the time they need to heal and find sobriety.
“We work with people where they are at,” Daniels said. “It is a self-directed program with a lot of support and guidance.” That approach has been the core philosophy of Hart House from the beginning, she said, but over the years it has expanded to acknowledge that some residents just need more time.
“What has changed about Hart House is the amount of time that people can stay here,” Daniels said. “At first the women could only stay for six months. That’s no longer the case. There might be some residents there who have been living there for a year or two years. The average stay is about four months.”
While many women live at Hart House for a relatively short time, staff understand that different people need more time to get their feet under them.
“Some women need to stay a lot longer,” Daniels said. “They might have a chronic addiction as opposed to this being their first time through. They need extra time and support. We are able to tailor the program to whatever they need.”
For Korolchuk, that open-ended philosophy was important, cementing her feeling that Hart House is her family. Her longest stay in the program was a little over two years, when she had fallen back into an abusive relationship and was struggling to regain custody of her daughter. During her time in the program, Korolchuk worked with staff to maintain her sobriety and meet a number of key life goals.
“I went to school,” Korolchuk said. “I got my yoga certification. My daughter and I were reunited. The house manager at the time came with me to court, filled out all the documentation, did everything. I got my daughter back. I had almost five years of sobriety.”
Long stays aren’t a problem with Hart House staff, Daniels said, as long as the resident continues to focus on working at her goals.
Hart House residents are, she said, “learning to stay sober in all the ways in their life, learning how to have fun while being sober. Being at Hart House gives them the time and space to make those changes that they’ve identified as being necessary.”
Korolchuk said that Hart House staff took the time needed to help her recover from a childhood trauma that was keeping her from living a healthy life.
“I had a trauma that had taken place in a shower,” Korolchuk said. Memories of this event made it difficult for her to take a shower. “I would be tortured by symptoms and flashbacks,” she explained. “It was extremely painful for me.”
A staff member at Hart House noticed that Korolchuck took an especially long time in the bathroom. “She asked me,” Korolchuck recalled, “‘What’s the deal with the showers?’ She was so awesome. She spoke with me privately in the office. I started talking about what was in my head.”
Over time, Korolchuck said the staff member was able to help her develop strategies for making the shower feel safe again: “She worked with me one-on-one. We’d do a timer. I did little bits at time. She got me through something that would only take extreme compassion to get someone through.”
Korolchuck’s last stay at Hart House was about a year and a half ago. She explained that she’d been forced into a human trafficking ring, but eventually managed to escape. Gaunt, addicted and terrified, Korolchuk asked law enforcement officers that to take her back to the only place she considered home.
“Hart House took me in,” she said. “They took me in as broken as you can and kept me safe. It was very dangerous. I had to rebuild myself from the ground up. I did outpatient treatment while I lived there. There was nowhere else I could’ve healed except there.”
With support and a safe place to live, Korolchuck said she felt able to go back into the world a little more quickly. She found work as a sober house manager and said she feels stronger than she has in years. “I don’t think I’m ever going to experience trauma again,” Korolchuk said. “I just have this spiritual knowing that I’m going to be okay now. This is where Hart House is burned into my heart forever.”
She credits program staff and residents’ deep understanding and support with this new sense of knowing. “I went form a terrible experience to just being unconditionally loved,” she said. “A lot of places give you a room, bedding. Other places give you some support, but Hart House goes above and beyond. Other places treat you like an addict, not a human being. At Hart House it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you’ve done. It’s just that you are there. It’s not judgement. They understand things are full-circle.”
Another thing about Hart House that Korolchuck had to get used to is the program’s focus on supporting women. After years of active addiction, she realized that she’d formed few if any strong female friendships.
“It’s weird having relationships with women,” Korolchuk said. “For women in active addiction, it is pretty foreign. So moving somewhere like Hart House takes an adjustment. Almost every girl that comes in is like, ‘This is so cool. I’ve never had this in my life. I’ve never had female relationships.’”
When a new resident moves into the house, Korolchuk explained that they often need time to adjust, to understand the way things work.
“At first you don’t have a lot of social skills. You don’t know what you’re doing. Hart House is really good at having everybody come together. There are even groups that are focused on that, like one called ‘Feelings,’ where you pick up a popsicle stick with different feeling written on it and you talk about that feeing and how you experience it.“
But living with a group of women isn’t always hearts and flowers, Korolchuck admitted. “It isn’t always easy. We would have fights. We’d get mad at each other. We’d think someone wasn’t doing their chores good. We’d find little things to pick on but we’d always come together. You don’t have an option except to love yourself and the girl next to you. Nobody can do this alone. Without connection there isn’t much chance at healing.”
Many of the women in the house have children, Daniels said, and many, like Korolchuck, have had lost custody of those children due to their addiction. If the women want to regain custody of their children, Hart House staff helps them meet that goal.
“If a woman has [child protection services] order, we work with them to help reunite them with their children,” Daniels said. “Other women’s children are staying with friends or family members until they are stable enough to reunite.” On weekends, children can stay overnight with their mothers in their rooms.
Recently, Hart House staff and residents gathered at Como Park in St. Paul for an outdoor reunion. Korolchuck said that she and other alumni spent time, “laughing at all the things we thought were such a big deal back then. Now, over half of us have jobs in recovery right here in the Twin Cities.”
Daniels is happy to see so many Hart House graduates making a difference in the local recovery community. And she’s proud to see the program she launched continue to offer services to women. There’s even talk of opening a sober house in a nearby building.
“Obviously the goal of any organization like ours is to go out of business because we weren’t needed anymore,” Daniels said. “We’d love that. But there is not a cure for addiction. People will continue to need our services. My vision for Heart House is to continue to do what we’ve done best, which is to adapt and grow and meet needs when they arise, to continue to adapt to the women who need our services.”
Korolchuck said that for her, Hart House in an anchor, a touchstone that keeps her grounded in her recovery. She wants to give back to the program because it has given so much to her.
“Hart House has your back,” she said. “It is a fierce female force shining brightly in a sometimes dark community. Without Hart House I wouldn’t have stood a chance. They treated me with value when the world deemed me invisible and because of that my daughter and I are alive and happy. I’m gratefully passing on the fierce female force to my clients in the recovery community.”