In June 2021, we shared the story of three women associated with Solace Apartments in Saint Peter, which offers permanent and supportive community housing for people recovering from addictions. For this issue, we returned to three primary players at Solace to learn more about what the Housing First model offers: Ashley McCarthy, resident services navigator at Solace; Jen Lamb, director of supportive services for SWMHP; and Solace resident April Chouinard.
Solace Apartments was established by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SMHP) after treatment court judge Allison Krehbiel and a clinical psychologist recognized the support that was missing to help people, especially those with children, succeed at recovery. People were coming out of treatment, on probation, and needed stable housing. But with an often less than 1 percent vacancy rate in the Nicollet County area, people being discharged from treatment or jail were sometimes living in a car or moving back into an environment that was unsafe and not conducive to staying sober.
The question to solve was: where can people get back on their feet with stability as the next step?
According to Lamb, the team that came together to solve that question included Judge Krehbiel, the clinical psychologist, SWMHP staff including an architect, county human services and case management, police, probation officers, drug court graduates, city and county officials, the public defender and county attorney, and property managers. The way to get it funded, they determined, was with a low-income housing tax credit program. It took three application attempts to get the funding. There were legal hurdles about what constitutes community living to overcome. It took five years of planning before construction began.
Solace offers one- to three-bedroom apartments, compared to other developments that have tended to be available only to single people. “With a lot of projects and landlords, you cannot lease a unit with more bedrooms than who you actually have living with you,” says Lamb. “We lease units very intentionally knowing that some of our folks don’t have their kids with them yet but are working toward family reunification.”
Many sober houses kick people out if they relapse even once, says Chouinard. “Then you are locked into that system of adjusting and trying to get your bearings, and relapsing, then getting kicked out, and adjusting, and trying to get your bearings. Kind of hopping from one place to the next.”
What is helping now is a shift in sober living facilities, she continued. Having somebody who has come out of addiction connect with the people who are going through it makes a big difference. Says Chouinard, “A lot of us come from a place where we didn’t learn how to process emotion, we didn’t learn how to process difficulty. Mine was so bad that I couldn’t have too happy of a moment without feeling [overwhelmed by it].”
Chouinard says it is also not uncommon, when you are rising up out of addiction after being down for a long time, “that you sabotage it. Having that sense of community is huge.”
When she relapsed, and faced potentially losing her home, McCarthy and others supported Chouinard getting another opportunity. “To be able to stay gave me a huge sense that I am worth something — that even if I cannot love myself yet, they do. All of a sudden you feel like somebody has your back and you matter. You are not just an addict. That grace is huge.”
McCarthy points out that it also is important to define success on an individual level. Chouinard is nearing three years of sobriety, serves on the SWMHP board of directors, and is starting a career in peer recovery. “Your textbook success case,” McCarthy says. “But there are other successes in Solace that look different. Somebody came into my office and said ‘I relapsed yesterday. I already talked to my probation officer. I already have my bags packed to go to treatment.’ That is success for that person.”
One resident has lived with alcoholism for four decades and is now living in a safe place where people can offer appropriate care. “That is success,” McCarthy continues. “It is not always that you never relapse again and you get a job and you are doing great. Relapsing four or five times in three years, but maintaining housing through that entire three years, that is success as well. Having that safety, that security. That is huge, because then you feel safe talking about it.
Solace is a community living space developed with a low- income tax credit, which means it is not a treatment house or a halfway house, and it cannot require sober living with psychological assessments. “It is a person’s home first and foremost,” McCarthy says. “Everybody has their own lease. We do not enter people’s apartments without their permission. We are not the police. We do a monthly inspection for cleanliness, which is part of the lease.”
“I think having that shared definition of the project is really crucial,” says McCarthy. “I do have monthly meetings with probation workers, our therapists, and the county workers to talk about who is doing well, who is struggling — as an entire group, how can we wrap around this person if they need it, to make sure that this person is doing as well as they can and will keep their housing.”
Chouinard notes that as a drug court participant, Judge Krehbiel “did have a very firm grip on my whole being, because when you are in drug court, you are facing jail time, so you sign over some basic rights. I wasn’t allowed to have boys over for a year, for example. She recognized that as a problem before I did.”
Solace has had two cases that required eviction: one person was producing drugs on site, and another one hitting a resident with intentions of continuing to do so.
One of the biggest challenges for Solace is that it has a very long wait list. All residents are referred by treatment court, case management, recovery and mental health providers, or the homeless response coordinated entry system. Says McCarthy, “We don’t pick and choose, other than trying to prioritize county residents because of the financial responsibility of Nicollet County.”
Not all Minnesota counties have a good plan for working with community members struggling with addiction. One Changemakers Alliance member on the group conversation with Solace representatives once worked for a nonprofit in a northern Minnesota county. If a person in a homeless shelter relapsed, the person was given a bus token to travel to Duluth or some other location. As someone who worked with struggling families for many years, the CALL member asked, how do you help people avoid the trap of thinking there are deserved poor or deserved addicts — that people who might not do well in recovery are “throwaway people”?
McCarthy says: “I feel like it all comes down to just individual stories. There are times where I am talking to residents and think, ‘I probably would have done meth too if that happened to me.’ Just getting to know that story.”