When Nixon Matignas served in Iraq with the Army from 2007 to 2009, he had dreams of defending his country and becoming his own man.
Never did he imagine he’d wind up homeless in San Francisco, living in hotel rooms and in abandoned coyote dens in Golden Gate Park, cleaning himself up in public bathrooms before going to work as a housekeeper at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
“I was a broken man,” said Matignas, 29. “I was living like Will Smith’s character in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’”
After spending two years patrolling Baghdad on foot and in Humvees as an infantryman, Matignas and everyone in his battalion returned to the United States safely, despite a few firefights and run-ins with improvised explosive devices.
But emotionally, Matignas wasn’t OK. He returned to Fremont suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Without a daily routine, he felt lost. He didn’t feel safe leaving the house without a weapon. He became compulsive about cleaning the home. He got a job as a security guard at Safeway, but it didn’t last. He argued with his wife over how to parent their newborn girl, Divynity.
“My deployment and the distance between us made us see things differently, and I failed to keep the marriage happy,” he said.
They divorced. Matignas and his daughter moved in temporarily with his father and stepmother in San Bruno. They slept in the living room, but eventually everyone agreed it was too crowded and tense, and that he should move out and find his own place.
Without a home
“My daughter went back with her mother, and I went out on the street.”
It was late 2011. Matignas had no money, nowhere to go, and he fell into a deep depression. He was too ashamed to bother his friends. So he drew on his military survival skills.
“I found a place in Golden Gate Park and made myself a little cave. I found a place at Baker Beach, too, where the foxes and coyotes have a little den, and I confiscated it. I tried to imagine where an animal would go. I didn’t want to be on the street with humans; it didn’t feel as safe.”
He ate free meals at churches. When it rained, he dried out inside bus and BART stations. He took himself to the VA hospital and began seeing a therapist for PTSD. He saw his daughter as often as he could, but wished it was more.
Finally, in October 2013, while having blood drawn at the hospital, he told the phlebotomist about his living situation. The worker who drew his blood took pity and offered to help get Matignas a job at the hospital. Soon after, he was hired as a housekeeper. He befriended co-workers and other veterans, and opened up to the hospital’s social workers. He used the hospital’s showers, and occasionally slept there overnight so he wouldn’t miss work.
A social worker at the hospital told Matignas she could help him apply for a federal housing program that provides subsidized Section 8 housing to veterans. Earlier this month, a few days before Christmas, Sharon Aranha helped Matignas move into a studio apartment near Candlestick Park.
A bit of assistance
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Season of Sharing fund helped pay for the deposit and first month’s rent, and for some furniture. Best of all, Matignas and his ex-wife have agreed that their daughter can live with him when she starts school in the fall.
“I picked a bed for my daughter,” he said. “I got a couch and dressers. The apartment has a beautiful layout and great cabinets. She is going to love it here.”
Now that Matignas is learning about all the resources for veterans, he’s planning to go back to school on the G.I. Bill and finish his education.
“It was really hard to pull myself out of where I was,” he said. “But I am my parents’ kid. They are immigrants to this country, from the Philippines, and nothing kept them down. If they went through a struggle, then I can handle mine.”
Meredith May is San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original article can be found here.