Sobering reality

Sisters of brothers who died while living in sober homes say they needed more structure than provided. Men, who lived or are living in sober homes, say it provides a step toward their new life.

Chad Hanson - Sober home
Chad Hanson, right, speaks Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, about his time living in a Burlington Recovery sober home on Tyrol Drive in Brainerd. At his left is former sober home resident Travis Elledge.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Alicia Schurman, Irene Rivera and LeeAnna Stinar lost brothers to addiction in the past year and a half.

They believe the sober homes where their brothers were living played a role in their relapses and, ultimately, deaths.

Other residents at the same houses, however, say the facilities have undoubtedly saved their lives.

The owners believe they’re doing everything they can to help their residents overcome chemical dependency and live productive lives.

The diversity of lives in the Burlington Recovery Homes show the dichotomy between those with addiction. Some survive their trials, ultimately turning their lives around. Others are not so lucky, eventually succumbing to their substance abuse struggles.


Nicholas Peterson and Chad Hanson know the first side — how it feels to live a clean life after so many years of struggle.

Schurman, Rivera and Stinar are familiar with the other side, still grieving the brothers they lost.

Sheila Haverkamp has seen both sides as the owner of Burlington Recovery Homes. She — along with husband Gene Haverkamp, son Joe Wasnie, daughter Megan Adams and son-in-law Nate Adams — runs a series of sober homes in Brainerd and Little Falls, providing a housing option for those working toward sobriety.

Haverkamp and her team own and operate seven sober homes — six in Brainerd and one in Little Falls — and three apartment units in Brainerd for men who want a sober living situation. The homes average seven to nine bedrooms with 9 to 13 residents living in them.

Sheila Haverkamp addresses the Brainerd Planning Commission.
Sheila Haverkamp addresses the Brainerd Planning Commission Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at Brainerd City Hall.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The homes have been the subject of discussion at the Brainerd City Council level in recent years. Two of the homes are on Tyrol Drive, a 26-house cul-de-sac with residents who voiced concerns about the houses in 2021. Residents spoke at City Council meetings about the number of police calls to the houses, noise levels and parking and asked about stricter regulations on the homes. While many residents worried about their property values and said the noise and traffic patterns no longer made the neighborhood feel safe and family friendly, a couple stuck up for the homes, saying some of the residents have been helpful with things like yard work in the past.

Council and city staff members explored the idea of more regulations on the home, but learned those recovering from chemical dependency are considered disabled under the Federal Fair Housing Act. This means municipalities must make reasonable accommodations for the facilities, and sober homes are broadly protected from local government control. While city officials are not able to regulate the homes to the extent Tyrol Drive residents wanted, the homes are licensed as rentals through the city and must still follow city building code in terms of things like capacity and room sizes.

But Schurman, Rivera and Stinar think there should have been more measures in place to help their brothers.

Lives lost

Robert Cunningham and John Lehmann both went to live in Burlington houses after undergoing treatment programs for their addiction.


Family members thought the homes would be the perfect place for Cunningham and Lehmann to live while transitioning back into normal life and continuing to receive support to help with their addictions.

Irene Rivera decided not to let Cunningham, her older brother, come back to live with her as he had done before treatment.

“I said, ‘Not this time.’ And then they found the sober house, which was made to seem great,” Rivera recalled during an interview in 2022. “It’s a bunch of sober guys living together. They’re all gonna help each other out. They’re all gonna help look for jobs, you know?”

Robert Cunningham

She and sister Alicia Schurman felt they needed to show their brother a little tough love.

“People might think, well, ‘You’re his family. Why wasn’t he with you?’ Well, he was for years. He lived with my mom for years. He lived with Irene for years. People get to a point where it’s like, OK, we need tough love to force you to do your own thing,” Schurman said.

But choosing the sober home for her brother over her own home is a decision that will stay with Rivera for years to come.

After nearly a year at one of the Brainerd sober homes, Cunningham died in his room from alcoholism Aug. 23, 2021, just 12 days after his 33rd birthday.

“We live with a ton of should’ve, could’ve, would’ves,” Schurman said. “That makes it hard, too, because we thought that this was going to be helpful for him.”


LeeAnna Stinar has similar feelings.

Lehmann, her younger brother, had finished 30 days of treatment when he went to live in the Burlington sober home in Little Falls last year. And at first, he seemed to be doing really well, rekindling his relationship with his teenage son.

“They were communicating, which is something that they hadn’t done a lot in the past,” Stinar said. “They were staying in constant contact with each other, so it really looked like he was taking the steps that he needed to go on the right path — until we got the call.”

John Lehmann

That call came Dec. 8, when Lehmann died of a suspected overdose at the age of 35. His family does not yet have the official autopsy report.

Now, Stinar, Schurman and Rivera all question whether the Burlington Recovery homes were the right places for their brothers and why more wasn’t done to save their loved ones.

“We realize that these men are men,” Schurman said. “They’re their own person; they make their own decisions. They shouldn’t have a babysitter, but when they’re living in a home that’s being paid for by taxpayer money, they need to have some kind of structure.”

While some of the residents pay for the housing themselves, Haverkamp said others are able to receive housing assistance through Crow Wing County. For those who get jobs and manage to get off the county assistance, Haverkamp said she reduces the rent.

The sisters, however, feel the lower rent received from men who pay on their own versus payments received from the county does not incentivize staff to help the men get jobs. Haverkamp, however, said it’s a way to help the men get their lives back on track.


Money aside, Stinar, too, thought there would be more structure in the home where her brother went to live.

“I don’t think that in a room with zero resources with 10-12 other people on recovery journeys, leaning on each other, trying to figure out which way’s up is really, honestly a recipe for success,” Stinar said. “... I was shocked to find out that it was just a residential home in the middle of a town that he’s never been able to stay clean in and that he has access to every single resource that he’s always had access to.”

Stinar and her family moved from Minneapolis to Cushing shortly after her brother was born, when she was about 12 or 13, as her step-dad was from Little Falls.

“He was very much kind of a daredevil growing up,” she said. “He was a boy of all boys. I mean, put him on a four wheeler, and I’m just putzing along, and he’s rip-roaring, having a blast. He loved to hunt. He loved to fish. He loved everything outdoors, which was completely opposite of me.”

The family noticed a shift in Lehmann around the age of 14, when he began smoking marijuana with his friends and underwent sporadic mood changes. He eventually had his son and took a turn for the worse, as Stinar describes it, along with his son’s mother.

Lehmann lived with his parents and eventually got custody of his son, but his battle with addiction continued.

“I feel like I lost him years ago, even though I just lost him a couple weeks ago,” Stinar said during an interview in December. “He was in and out of the system constantly. We were constantly asking for resources or different ways to get him help, and we just couldn’t.”

Schurman and Rivera felt much the same with Cunningham, who they described as one of the funniest people they had ever known.


“Everybody loved him,” Schurman said. “He could make anybody laugh. He was nice to everyone. I don’t think he really had any enemies ever.”

“There’s been quite a few people who have reached out and said that they were bullied in school, and Bobby would always stand up for them,” Rivera added. “... He would, too. He always stood up for me.”

Schurman referred to him as her “big little brother” because he was bigger than her and her fierce protector.

But Cunningham’s struggles with alcoholism eventually took over his life. He was hospitalized several times and went into treatment twice.

Independent sober living

The crux of the issue for Schurman, Rivera and Stinar is the lack of resources and structure they feel their brothers had at the Burlington homes.

“These guys can make their own choices, but people who don’t understand addiction don’t realize it’s a disease — like, they need help,” Schurman said. “If you’re being told this person that’s living in your home is going to drink himself to death and your focus in life, the only thing you have to do, is run these homes because you want to help people — what are you doing to help them?”

From Haverkamp’s point of view, her homes are set up as independent living, giving the residents a place to live their lives on their own while also leaning on others who are going through the same journey to sobriety.

“When you think of the big picture and the cog around housing, we are independent living sober housing,” Haverkamp said during an interview in January. “... We go through an interview process and try to understand the individual, their background, where they’re at today and what they’re facing. And then we make sure — very clearly — they understand what type of home we are and whether it can be a good fit to help them in their journey of recovery.”


Haverkamp and her team aren’t the only ones deciding if the sober home is a good fit, though. They work with counselors from treatment centers, case managers and probation officers.

Sober home on Tyrol Drive
One of the Burlington Recovery sober homes sits at the end of Tyrol Drive in Brainerd.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

“They’re the ones who really say, ‘Yes, this man is ready for fully independent sober living,’” Wasnie said. “And we respect that because addicts will not always be honest in our interviews. So we can ask away, and we have to trust them, but we also trust the professionals who have been overlooking them for the last several months or however long they were in their care.”

The independent living model is what Haverkamp felt she could offer, based on her background, expertise and limited staff members.

“The challenge we face is that, you know, we try to respect them,” Haverkamp said. “And they are not committed by the courts, typically, to our homes. Once in a rare while somebody will be under some type of commitment, but more times than not they’re independent. They get to make their own choices and their own decisions.”

While the men are offered an independent living situation, Haverkamp and Wasnie said they and their team are there as much as possible, sometimes taking men to meetings or church or just to hang out and talk. They each have their own homes they oversee but will team up or bring in other other resources — probation agents, case managers, social workers — when faced with a tricky situation that calls for a more hands-on approach.

“There’s always going to be people who struggle,” said Wasnie, who has personally dealt with addiction in his past. “... For somebody who doesn’t know anything about addiction, there’s really no way to explain that feeling — ‘I want to do it, but I don’t. I think this will make whatever is going on to me all better’ but knowing it won’t and not being able to say ‘no’ sometimes. That’s a very frustrating moment for an addict.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85% of addicts relapse within one year of treatment, and men are more likely to relapse than women, with 51% of women remaining sober compared to 25% of men.

Haverkamp knows she won’t be able to prevent every tragedy and said she and her family grieve when they lose a resident, too.

Since the recent fatalities, the team said they have increased their random room searches and drug tests and are looking to hire someone whose full-time job would be to conduct searches and tests.

They are also working with residents, current and past, who want to obtain their peer support specialist certification, which provides training for those who have lived experience to be able to support others going through addiction or mental health struggles.

Staying the course

Chad Hanson, a long-time resident at one of the Tyrol Drive sober homes, is working on his peer support specialist certification now. Hanson has been sober for over three years now, after battling addiction for more than three decades.

Along with peer support specialist training, Hanson has become an unofficial house manager at the sober home and said he is active in the recovery community by running meetings and working with residents in other sober homes.

“I’ve had so much good things happen to me here since I’ve been here. And I’ve made this my home, and I couldn’t have done it — stayed clean and sober — without Gene and Sheila,” Hanson said. “... I never would’ve thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever be where I’m at today.”

Group of people sit in a living room.
Current and former residents of Burlington Recovery Homes talk about their sobriety journeys Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Nicholas Peterson is another who said he benefited from Burlington Recovery Homes. He struggled with addiction for 17 years and lived in the sober home on Tamarac Street for six months after going through treatment at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge two years ago.

After having lived in other sober homes in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, Peterson said the Burlington home and its staff was a blessing.

“They helped me in so many ways that my life is now on track finally. And more than just a place to stay, they made sure I was safe, made sure that I went to all my appointments, made sure they stood up for me in the courtroom, made sure that the house was sober,” Peterson said during an interview last month. “... What they’re doing is crazy. That comes from somebody that has been in prison eight years and suffered addiction, and now I live in a house. After I stopped services with these guys, they continued to help me.”

That help extended beyond just Peterson to his whole family, as wife Alicia Bandel said the Haverkamps helped them find housing and get their children back after being turned down several times.

“We had three kids in foster care, and I was pregnant. They supported both of us, not just him, and brought us back together as a family,” Bandel said. “... If we ever call them still, even though we’re not in their homes, they’re more than willing to help us with anything.”


While Hanson, Peterson and others have testified that the Burlington homes saved their lives, Schurman and Rivera still think more could have been done to save their brother.

Cunningham relapsed once and was hospitalized during his stay at the Burlington home but was then welcomed back, they said, even though they were under the impression there was a no-tolerance policy and that he would be kicked out for any substance use.

“Where was the pressure from the owners of this home?” Schurman said.

Haverkamp and Wasnie said they believe in second chances though, depending on the situation. But if they know a resident is actively using, they typically ask them to leave.

“I give them the option all the time, ‘You can either move out, or you can go back to residential treatment. Which one do you want?’” Wasnie said. “And I would say most of the time they choose treatment because most of these guys don’t want to keep using.”

But in Stinar’s eyes, there do not seem to be sufficient checks and balances in place to curb that use.

“If you’re going to have fragile lives in your hands, then I think you need to be more regulated as far as I’m concerned,” Stinar said.

From his point of view, though, Wasnie said part of the issue is that many residents still have the “street mentality” of not wanting to tell on each other.

And periodic searches and drug tests can only do so much when the residents are supposed to be living independently.

“We give our word to everyone — we will do our very best, but we cannot promise that there will never be something in the house or a gentleman who has relapsed who we haven’t quite caught yet,” Haverkamp said.

Schurman maintained the signs her brother was back to drinking should have been obvious.

“... We suspected that he was back to drinking,” she said. “We all had — I don’t want to say come to terms with that’s what he was gonna choose — but we didn’t know for sure. But we suspected it, and we didn’t even live there.”

While Cunningham, Lehmann and other Burlington residents have been counted among the 85% of addicts who relapsed within a year of their treatment, Hanson, Peterson and so many others make up the other 15%, which Haverkamp and her husband said makes them feel successful in their mission. They conducted their own study and believe about 50% of their residents maintain sobriety after leaving Burlington homes.

“If we’ve made a difference in someone else’s life,” Gene Haverkamp said, “then we are very successful at what we do.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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