A year ago, Ariel Juarez was alone on Christmas Day at a San Jose homeless shelter and, in his words, “curled up on my bedroll, waiting for time to pass by.”
Juarez’s son, Orion, then 5 years old, was spending the holidays with his mother. Juarez was mourning the recent and unexpected death of his father after a surgical procedure.
“That was tough,” said Juarez, 34. “I had some extra counseling sessions.”
Still, Juarez, who at the time was living out of his car, imagined a better future for himself and his son. He had struggled for years to hold a job, in part because of chronic back pain from a degenerative spine condition, but he refused to give up hope.
This month, as the pair settled into their new studio apartment in San Jose, the beginnings of the better life Juarez had dreamed of were beginning to take shape: a tabletop Christmas tree, “Star Wars” figurines, a toaster oven and kitchen cabinets stocked with canned goods.
Juarez and Orion moved into the below-market-rate apartment with the help of the Chronicle Seasons of Sharing Fund, which provided the security deposit, first month’s rent, a bed and a dining room set.
On their first night in their new home, Juarez made spaghetti for himself and Orion. The next morning, they made plans to drive to a nearby Ross store to buy a shower curtain.
The new routine felt like a small victory for Juarez, who since 2009 has had difficulty securing a steady job and stable housing. He had been a delivery truck driver, but that year, while getting out of his car, he suffered a herniated disc. Unable to work because of the pain, he lost his job and health insurance. He was later diagnosed with a degenerative disc disease, but it took three years to start receiving Social Security benefits. During that time, he lived mostly out of his car and relied on food stamps.
“That messed me up mentally,” Juarez said. “I wasn’t able to provide. I was basically bedridden.”
Juarez turned to drugs and alcohol to mask the pain, but says he quit and has been free of alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs for two years now. He is still taking opioid painkillers, at a low dose prescribed by his doctor, to help manage his back pain.
At his lowest point, a period from 2012 to 2013, he came close to ceding full custody of Orion to his son’s mother, who also spends a lot of time with the child.
“Sometimes I thought I should stop fighting and leave, and she’ll raise him and however he’ll be, he’ll be,” Juarez said. “I came very close to that. … But it’s not who I am. He needs that male figure.”
During the several years Juarez was homeless, he and Orion would drive up and down the state, making stops at the Lick Observatory, Santa Cruz and Mount Madonna County Park in Watsonville.
“I always played PSP during the road trips,” Orion said, referring to the video game console PlayStation Portable.
Since March, Juarez has worked as a crossing guard at Sunnyvale Middle School. The job allows him to work part time — a few hours a day — and the income supplements the Social Security payments he receives each month. He can use his good arm, which is his left, and he has even been asked to help train new guards, he said.
“It’s therapeutic to help out and give back to the community,” Juarez said. “It feels good.”
In April, he was able to move out of transitional housing and rent a room in a house, but he longed for a larger space that could be a better home for Orion.
Marie Bernard, executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services — where caseworker Maria Buenrostro helped Juarez find monthly food distribution and back-to-school-supplies for Orion — was impressed with Juarez’s persistence.
“It takes a village to be a safety net,” Bernard said to Juarez as they sat in his new apartment, with Orion playing with “Star Wars” figurines a few feet away. “And the individual has to be strong about asking and following up. For all the help the nonprofits do, it’s 90 percent you.”
Bernard’s group, along with Gardner Family Care, Second Harvest Food Bank, Downtown Streets and LifeMoves, each played a role in helping Juarez seek medical care, food, housing and therapy.
Having a home of his own has not yet sunk in for Juarez, who said he feels like he’s in a hotel. He often thinks back to other parents of young children he met at homeless shelters going through similar hardships.
“I’d say to them, ‘Don’t give up. Let the look on their face fuel you,’” Juarez said. “If you’ve made mistakes, own up to them and get better. A lot of things can be forgiven, and you can move on and change.”
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