The chubby Boston terrier named Miss Ella bustles around the grounds of the Red Road House.
She is a joy, and she is a reminder of sorrow.
Someone stepped on her head some years ago, making her deaf, but that’s not the saddest part of this story.
Miss Ella came to Red Road House in Janesville last year with her owner, a 28-year-old heroin addict.
The House is a roof over the heads of recovering alcoholics and addicts who often were homeless before they arrived.
Founded in 1990 by recovering alcoholic/addict Billy Bob Grahn, it’s a refuge and place for people to start over after ruining their lives with alcohol or drugs.
The house in Janesville’s Fourth Ward has rules designed to help its inhabitants recover: Attend 12-step meetings regularly, work, volunteer or go to school. Stay clean.
Ella’s owner was on track, Grahn said. She was getting better. Like her fellow residents, she was learning how to live like a “normal” person.
“What a sweetheart when she wasn’t using,” Grahn recalled.
Then things went sour. Among them, she violated a rule of the Rock County Drug Court program and was sent to jail for a month last summer.
The day she got out, she returned to Red Road House to say goodbye.
Grahn asked if she was there to pick up Miss Ella.
“No, Ella belongs here,” she said.
“She said thank you very much, and off she went into the sunset,” Grahn said.
Ella was one of the few things she would admit to loving, Grahn said. It was like she knew she wouldn’t be able to care for the dog.
In December, Grahn heard she had overdosed and died in a Rockford, Illinois, hospital.
Miss Ella, meanwhile, seemed to have a sixth sense about who was hurting, physically or otherwise, and gave them her ears to scratch.
“Making people happy, that’s her whole job in life,” Grahn said.
Grahn has lost many to addiction through the years, but the death of this woman got to him in a way the others didn’t.
No place to go
Red Road House, which for years has served alcoholics, has become more of a place for addicts of heroin and its chemical sisters.
The changeover started five years ago. Grahn was amazed at how many people started coming to his door, as many as 30 a month, homeless and deep into their addictions.
“So I started taking in heroin addicts. Life hasn’t been the same since.”
He is still taking them in and still turning them away, although not as many as five years ago.
They were not the destitute derelicts from an urban alley, an image from the 1970s. They were white, often young. Many were college graduates.
“There’s no place for us to go,” they would tell him.
He had heard the same from alcoholics. Only the drug had changed. He said he could help, but he had no ability to provide technical addiction treatment, such as medication.
Grahn remembers the feeling himself of going from homelessness to having a room of his own: “I might be somewhat normal again. When you’re on the street, you’re not normal. You know it. Everybody knows it.”
Grahn begs at various agencies to get his residents medical help, drug treatment or mental health counseling.
“But even I have trouble, and I’ve been doing this 27 years,” he said.
The agencies just don’t have the resources to help everyone. It’s a complaint that others fighting the opioid/heroin epidemic have made frequently.
“We’ve definitely got a problem in Rock County, and there definitely are some people willing to help,” Grahn said.
Asked how many rooms it would take to house all the homeless addicts in Rock County, Grahn couldn’t say, other than, “many, many.”
Grahn has no college degree, just his experience. The house is no cure, he said. It’s just a spoke in a wheel that includes in-patient detoxification, counseling, medication and the 12-step organizations.
Red Road House has seven rooms. He was averaging one request a day and could not say yes to most.
“It breaks my heart,” he said.
He knows that when a homeless addict asks for help, the window of opportunity could be as small as five minutes. When the addict walks away, she is minutes from her next fix.
An addict’s life
The Red Road House sits in a neighborhood with some well-maintained homes and some decrepit ones. You could throw a stone and hit a house where drugs are sold, Grahn said.
He remembers that as an addict he had an uncanny sense for where to find money for drugs—stealing it off the bar at a tavern or finding an open car.
“Whatever it took,” he added. “Every moment, I knew it was wrong. Life ain’t supposed to be like this. I was dying on the inside.”
Being an addict, he said, is to “look at your wife and three kids and know you don’t have so much as a can of soup in the house, and you get a surprise check in the mail, and you say, ‘Honey, I’m going to go cash this check,’ and you come back 11 days later.”
Every time he shot the drugs into his veins over those 11 days, “The shame, the remorse was beyond words. And yet, I’d do it again.”
That was decades ago. Grahn talks about it freely. He was in treatment 41 times. Addiction experts say that’s what it takes: many tries before it finally sticks.
Counselors’ words didn’t make sense to him the first 40 times. He didn’t think of himself as an alcoholic and addict: “Where I come from, this was just life. How could this stuff not be my friend? Every time I was sad or hurting, this stuff cured me. Every time. But it only lasted a short time.”
Out the back door
The 41st time, he had drunk nearly three quarts of brandy and had a combination of heroin and cocaine running through him. That led to a stroke and a trip to intensive care.
As he sat there among the beeping machines, the only thing he could think of—when he had a mother, father, three sisters, wife and children all within three miles of him, he said—was that he had a bit of brandy and some heroin left over.
As they were releasing him from the hospital a few days later, a doctor pointed out a nearby treatment center.
“I’m going to stand here, and if you don’t walk in there, I’m going to have you committed,” the doctor said.
Grahn walked in.
Then he walked out the back door.
Still fearing commitment to a mental health facility, he came back the next day. Someone gave him a cup of coffee, but he went out the back door again. A couple of days later, he was able to bring himself to stay.
He was there 90 days. It was the first time since he was 14 that he had been sober that long.
He knew he could walk out the door and within a short time be back on the drugs ”by the time I left the parking lot,” he said.
The motivation was there: He had no home to go to, bill collectors were after him, and he had criminal matters pending. A homeless addict sees no choice but to keep using drugs, he said.
But somehow he avoided drugs and found a place to stay, a house where the owner rented to recovering addicts and alcoholics.
Long story made short, Grahn stayed clean, and two years after his recovery, he founded the Red Road House, borrowing with permission from tribal elders a term from his Native American religion that refers to a person’s spiritual journey through this life.
Ideally, Red Road residents have dried out and completed primary treatment. Some are getting treated with Suboxone, designed to wean them from their addiction, but without the house, they’d be homeless.
He can’t cure anyone, he says over and over, but he can be one part of an overall “continuum of care.”
Residents are required to work, go to school or do community service. They must attend 12-step meetings regularly. They are checked up on. Grahn knows addicts lie.
“It’s what we do.”
At times, Grahn has to call them out for lying about being at a meeting. He was there, he said, and didn’t see them.
Making ends meet
Nearly half of Red Road residents don’t pay for their time there. Many are at the very bottom.
“Even treatment centers don’t want them,” Grahn said. “They’ve been through it 100 times. ... I don’t have the heart to kick them out. It’s damned near cost me the house two or three times.”
He scrimps on dish-washing liquid and toilet paper. For 16 of the 25 years, he has worked without a salary. Grahn now has one other staff member, another recovering addict who works for room and board.
Grahn begs for donations, begs for treatment, begs for medication. He files for grants from time to time. Somehow, he keeps it together.
“I often wonder what would happen if I had the funding to do this,” he said.
That would mean a professional staff and better access to professional services.
He still has about $25,000 left on the mortgage. He’d love to pay it off and get it on a stable footing so it could continue another 25 years because he won’t last that long, he said.
He’d even like to start another house. And he’s been asked to establish another house on his home reservation, the Bad River Band of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin.
Miss Ella, revisited
Grahn recently reviewed the house’s results for the past three years. Of the 64 people who have stayed there, 35 left sober. Eleven went to prison or jail. One is “on the run.” Three disappeared. Three moved out. Three went elsewhere because of mental illness. One went to a nursing home. One was told to leave because of violent tendencies.
Six are dead.
Ella meanwhile, continues her work with the residents. One was a 30-year-old woman who was particularly attached to the dog.
“You could just see the utter pain in their eyes from years of using and disappointing their families,” Grahn said of this woman and of Ella’s owner. “After they were clean a week or two, you could see that life. They had that sparkle in their eyes. You could see they really wanted to be clean.”
The second woman was doing well. She got a 12-step sponsor and made food when meetings included potlucks. Then she relapsed.
“She got one hit, and it was loaded with fentanyl,” Grahn said.
Fentanyl is suspected in many of the local heroin-related deaths in the past two years. It is many times more powerful than heroin, so powerful that one shot of naloxone, which has saved untold numbers of people from overdose, won’t work. Sometimes two shots of naloxone don’t work.
About two months after Ella’s owner’s death, the second young woman overdosed and died, too.
She died at the Red Road House.
Ella climbed up on top of her and howled.
For three weeks afterward, Ella’s back legs wouldn’t work. She crawled and whined. Grahn talked about having her put down. Then it cleared up. Now she walks with no problem and continues her work with residents.
And her rounds include sitting for hours next to the doors of two young women who are no longer there.