Man who was once homeless starts non-profit, launches 8 sober homes in Winnipeg

Russell Lee Abraham lights a bundle of sage in a black bowl in the middle of the small dining room table, and smudges with two other Indigenous men in the house at 236 Atlantic Ave. in Winnipeg’s North End.

“It really helps you think. Before I go to bed, I put myself on a mission, give myself a smudge, go to bed. I wake up and I got a plan,” said Abraham, who is part Ukrainian and Ojibway. 

Abraham’s plan is to build a network of sober homes for people recovering from addictions in Winnipeg. Since March last year, he has launched eight of them — seven in the North End and one in the West End. 

The home at 236 Atlantic was the first. The two-storey detached home has five bedrooms and houses people — mostly men — who want sobriety, after having dealt with drug addictions, crime and homelessness. 

Abraham holds up the list of guidelines for housemates to follow, left, and the incorporation certificate from the province that says Accountable on Atlantic is a registered non-profit organization. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“At the beginning, it was to help other people like myself, who were coming out of recovery, to have a place to go. Then it turned into ‘I can help more people straight off the street,'” he said. 

Abraham, who goes by the name Junior Kozak, said he was addicted to heroin, cocaine, other drugs and alcohol for nearly two decades. In 2006, he was convicted of attempted murder and was sentenced to four years in prison.

When he got out of prison, Abraham was homeless for months. A friend’s helped get him referred to a men’s addictions treatment program at Union Gospel Mission. After graduating, he continued attending recovery groups and worked at Red Road Lodge for a year. 

“I’ve seen how rough the world is. When you get back out there, you have no one waiting for you,” he said. 

Abraham’s bowl of sage sits on the dining room table. He says members within the recovery home smudge often, offering prayers and asking for guidance. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Abraham, 38, has been sober for 2½ years. In September 2020, he officially registered his non-profit organization, Accountable on Atlantic, with the province.

The organization will be a grassroots movement, focused on building sober homes and finding peer support for people in recovery, he said.

“If you don’t build a community, no one is talking to you. You have no one saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Keep your spirits up.’ Then you have to pay your bills, buy your groceries.… All that’s a lot of pressure,” Abraham said. 

‘New type of family’ 

Steve Reinheimer, 36, moved into the house at 236 Atlantic last August. He’s been sober for 13 months after having battled addictions for 14 years. 

“Today, it feels wonderful. It really does. It feels secure. I feel like I’m a proper functioning member of society, and I feel good about myself again,” Reinheimer said.

Steve Reinheimer, 36, moved into the house at 236 Atlantic Ave. last August. Living with people who have similar experiences has made him feel at home — something he hasn’t felt for nearly 20 years, he says. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Before moving into the home, Reinheimer lived in shelters such as the Salvation Army and Main Street Project, as well as rundown hotels and apartments. 

“I was all over the place. I’m not going to lie,” he said. 

Living with people who have similar experiences has made him feel at home — something he hasn’t felt for nearly 20 years, he said. 

“We’re family now and it’s a new type of family.… This is special to me, because I take a lot of pride in this place,” Reinheimer said.

All volunteer work 

In a house run by Accountable on Atlantic, residents have a list of guidelines to follow. They’re not allowed to have drugs or alcohol in the house. They also can’t have visitors for the first month and must commit to a minimum six-month stay. 

Abraham said each room in a house costs approximately $500. With around four to six residents in a house, the payments are enough to cover rent, utilities and communal groceries and supplies. 

The guidelines for residents with Accountable on Atlantic include not having drugs or alcohol in the house. Residents also can’t have visitors for the first month and must commit to a minimum six-month stay. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

He’s not being paid to run the homes — recruiting housemates and finding sympathetic landlords who are willing to open up their homes is volunteer work, he said. 

“It feels great. The feeling I get for helping one another, to see them smile and see them succeed and feel proud about themselves, is way better than a big fat cheque,” he said. 

Bridging a gap 

Richard Walls, CEO and founder of Red Road Lodge, said Accountable on Atlantic is bridging a gap within the current housing system. 

People who face addictions and don’t have housing typically have to choose between staying at shelters or a structured place like Red Road Lodge (which houses 47 people under supervision), he said.

There are no places that fall between the extremes, that could prepare individuals for more treatments and programming, Walls said.

“There’s just a lot of people who fall through the cracks,” he said. 

The model of independent living in houses run by Abraham’s organization can help a lot of people, he said. 

“They’re really healing it at the grassroots level with not a lot of administration … and I think that’s really admirable.”