Stephanie Breitzmann walked through the old church that is now the Ruth House. A row of cots rested against the sanctuary wall.
The Superior woman recalled when they stored beds in the corner stacked several feet high.
This is where she sleeps.
Instead of a cot, Breitzmann prefers to use the chairs. With enough blankets, it feels like a bed, she said.
Breitzmann is a volunteer and a resident of the Ruth House, an offshoot of Walking Victorious Ministries, at 632 Grand Ave. in Superior. At the volunteer-run facility, people experiencing homelessness can eat, wash clothes or shower seven days a week.
By day, you can find assistance earning a GED, finding employment or housing and more. And by night, people experiencing homelessness can sleep in the warming center when temperatures are below 30, or if they’re members of the housing program.
“Some are here for a season, a week or two. Some over a year,” said Pastor Jack Swonger, co-founder of the Ruth House.
They’ve had hundreds come through since they opened more than two years ago as the first overnight warming center in Douglas County. They receive people exiting incarceration, treatment centers or just from the streets.
Many come from poor circumstances rather than because of something they did wrong, Swonger said.
And the Ruth House goals are set. “The No. 1 here is a safe, sober environment for people that are trying to get it right,” said house manager and program coordinator Christyna Foster.
All their services are sustained through donations and their 15 regular volunteers. No one is paid. “Our blessings come from the community we serve,” Swonger said.
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Before coming to the Ruth House, Breitzmann was a meth and heroin intravenous drug user.
“I had a completely normal life before. I was married, I had a house, a good job, and I fell to almost having nothing,” she said.
In November 2019, she had nowhere to go and walked 2 miles to the Ruth House with two backpacks full of clothes.
Breitzmann recalled feeling nervous because she didn’t have a relationship with God, and she knew the Ruth House was a nondenominational, Christian-based ministry.
Upon arrival, though, she met only acceptance and welcoming.
She was surrounded by people who had dealt with addiction or incarceration, including the leadership. She felt free from judgment, and the environment helped bridge a gap.
“Before I was here … I wanted to die. I’ve tried to OD multiple times and didn’t succeed. Obviously, God had another plan for me," she said. “When I found this place, I felt at home.”
Breitzmann attends recovery meetings at the house and focuses on serving God and giving back to the community.
As the overnight monitor for women, she’s the point person responsible for helping check in and set them up at the warming center.
During the day, she helps clean the kitchen, prepare and serve meals, process donations and more. Volunteering “definitely helps me stay sober,” she said.
Breitzmann is committed to staying at the Ruth House until June 1.
As part of the housing program, she works 30 hours a week, and 80% of her paycheck goes into a savings account, which is helping her save for an apartment and helps teach her accountability.
She is also reconnecting with her parents and trying to re-establish a relationship with her daughter. There are rough days, she said, but she is able to move forward today.
For some, the Ruth House is a soup kitchen; for others, it’s a place to get help for education.
“This place saved my life," Breitzmann said. "It gave me the family I didn’t have at the time. It gave me sober friends. It gave me the support I needed to move forward.
“It’s a safe, sober place of hope.”
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Last week, Breitzmann and the Ruth House night manager, David “Doc” Zeledon, stood in the dining area, which turns into the men’s sleeping quarters at night. (The women sleep upstairs in the sanctuary.) Three guests came in after 9 p.m.
Michael Staples, 23, has been sleeping at the Ruth House for a couple days. He heard about it through longtime friend Matthew Daniels, 21, who was also in tow. Daniels had been there for two months, along with James “Jay” Keller, 26.
“I was on the road to straight death,” Keller said. “I was shooting up drugs. … All I could do was sell drugs, and nobody cared about me. But I came here, and they gave me a second chance. They believed in me.”
Keller and Daniels had recently earned their GEDs and applied to carpentry apprenticeships with the help of the Ruth House.
“There’s so much love in this house. It’s unending,” said Daniels, who wore a Nintendo blanket like a cape.
The three retrieved plastic bags containing their pillows, sleeping bags and blankets for the night from an outdoor storage area. Staples held up a bag, double-checking his name was written on it.
Zeledon explained that people who come and are not sober may get a pass to stay on their first night because they don’t know the rules. If he or Breitzmann suspect someone is not sober, he administers a urinalysis to ensure they maintain a safe space for those trying to “get it right,” he said.
Zeledon knows what that’s like firsthand.
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Before the Ruth House, Zeledon served a 17-year prison sentence for murder. After his Dec. 31, 2019, release, he waited at the Duluth Transit Authority, looking to go anywhere but here. After more than three decades in and out of incarceration, he was ready to start over.
“Every time I walked out of prison, whether it was the Hell’s Angels that was waiting for me or that old club, The Brotherhood, I basically was putting one foot in prison the minute I threw my leg over that bicycle and rode off with them,” he said.
Zeledon met a young man at the DTA who asked if he needed somewhere to sleep. The man called Pastor Swonger.
When they met, Zeledon described Swonger’s talk as “a hug and a slap in the face.”
It was the “unvarnished truth” Zeledon needed to hear, and he has been living or volunteering at the Ruth House since.
The folks at the Ruth House helped him get his driver’s license. He slept there for six months before getting an apartment close by.
He became the warming house manager, and is Breitzmann’s counterpart in the evenings.
Along with checking people in and filling out paperwork, he helps keep the place safe at night. After he leaves at 10 p.m., calls are forwarded to his phone, and he handles police-administered drop-offs after hours. It’s a change going from feeling guarded to being the guard, he said.
They don’t have safety concerns overnight; the biggest elephant they encounter is addiction.
“People are with you for a while, and you think they’re getting it right, and then you lose them again," he said. "It hurts a lot, but you have to harden your heart a little bit and understand that your job is to be there when they come back.”
Zeledon recently accepted a position as a lay pastor, and is working on becoming an ordained minister, at the encouragement of Ruth House leadership.
“I was looking for someplace where me, with all my warts, would fit in. … Where I wouldn’t be judged and I’d be accepted for who I was as well as who I had been," Zeledon said, "and that’s the Ruth House in a nutshell.”
More info: walkingvictorious.net/ruth-house-twin-ports