For the first time in years, the Vegas have a home for the holidays.
This Christmas, the family of three will delight in the simple pleasures – a verdant green tree adorned with icy silver, vibrant red and sparkling blue ornaments, time spent with loved ones and a space to call their own after a hard fought battle with homelessness.
For 53-year-old Steven Vega, the warmth of the shared east Petaluma home will stand in stark contrast to the nights he spent on the streets of Oakland, reeling from chemotherapy and radiation while sorely missing his family. The passing of the holidays will be a proud moment for the father, who has worked tirelessly to keep his children, Max, 16, and Keira, 11, from sleeping on that same unforgiving asphalt after health issues and family tumult turned their lives upside down about a decade ago.
Steven Vega was diagnosed with cancer at 40, prompting an emergency surgery to remove his eye. That knocked him out of his job as an auto technician shortly before his son was forced undergo neurosurgery to eradicate a tumor. Steven Vega’s marriage began to crumble, and he lived on the streets for nearly a year, forgoing shelter to take odd jobs to pay the rent for his wife and children.
When the Alameda Unified School District office called to ask why his kids had a spotty attendance record, he realized his wife had become mentally unstable as she tumbled into a drug addition. He fought for custody of his children and they began a nomadic life, somberly filing through the houses of relatives or sleeping in hotels, never setting down anything more than shallow roots
Last November, when they landed in shelter beds through Petaluma’s Committee On the Shelterless (COTS), their luck changed. The family accessed vital health care and counseling services before they were given the opportunity to move into their home four months ago.
“I’m excited to have a house to be in – to go downstairs and be like ‘oh my gosh, it’s Christmas morning, we’ll open presents.’ We haven’t gotten to do that in a long time,” Keira Vega, a sixth grader at La Tercera Elementary School said.
For Steven Vega, who is still fighting a medley of health issues, the holidays provide a moment for reflection.
“The homeless thing – all that takes away self-esteem and the safety net. When we got to Petaluma, everything changed. I tried to keep a happy face on with them, even though I thought it was the end of the world. Since I got into COTS, I’ve been able to be happy again. I laugh a lot. Being homeless and all the stuff I went through with my job and my wife – all that would break most people, but I toughed it out. I made it through.”
Though the children have traversed a more rough-hewn path than others in Sonoma County, it’s been a journey rich with lessons, Max Vega said. The family now dedicates hours each week to volunteering at COTS and other social service programs.
“It changed me a lot,” said the Casa Grande sophomore. “It taught me to not be so down about being homeless and just be happy. Just go about your daily life and don’t be so down on anything. Just think good things, all the time.”