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.”
The Vega family’s plight isn’t an isolated one in Petaluma, where an average of 150 homeless students have been enrolled in the system’s 18 schools for each of the past five years, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dave Rose said. This year, about 105 homeless students are attending the various schools, representing a small fraction of the overall 7,493 students, Rose said.
The district considers students who are sharing housing because of economic hardship, living in motels, shelters, cars, public or private spaces not intended for occupation to be homeless. The district gets $12,000 annually – an “almost negligible” amount of funding for those homeless students – through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Rose said. To further stretch funds from other sources and increase collaboration, the district also partners with county and local agencies, such as COTS. A part-time homeless services liaison is on deck to assist students, as are counselors, Rose said.
“We make it (questions about living situations) part of some of the confidential forms and information we gather at registration, really at that point, the parent can be forthcoming and not be worried about asking us for help or if we have resources. We get it, life is different for all different parents and students in public schools. The other part becomes the relationships teachers on campus, administrators and office staff build with families and students,” he said.
Brett Sklove, the lead counselor at Casa Grande High School, said unstable living situations can translate to issues like failure to complete homework, poor attendance, or a sense of shame in sharing the truth.
“I think it can contribute to the uptick we’ve seen in anxiety among teens and depression, there’s just a lot of national statistics that it’s becoming pervasive in the teen population in a lot of areas,” he said. “And so I think those kind of extra stressors exacerbate what’s already there.”
Despite their challenges, the Vega children have performed at the top of their classes. Keira Vega hopes to be a teacher, and Max Vega is interested in testing video games or becoming a therapist. They haven’t hesitated to share their story with their teachers, and a few friends.
“It’s just so people know my story and know what we went through and understand that it’s hard,” Max Vega said.
Mike Johnson, CEO of COTS, said his organization is currently housing 45 homeless families in shelters. Last year, COTS placed 50 families in homes through its Rapid Rehousing program, which offers temporary financial assistance to make housing more attainable. He said the number of homeless families has been on the decrease in Sonoma County in recent years, but it’s still unclear what impact October’s deadly fires will have on those numbers. He said COTS’ will continue its focus is on finding homes for families, which he said is the foundation to success.
“Kids need predictability and reliability and consistency in their lives to thrive and having to move around or bounce in and out of temporary, unstable situations causes them a huge amount of disruption,” he said. “It falls into social lives, and school lives and kids that have gone through crisis are found to have delays in learning and reaching developmental milestones.”
He praised the Vega children for their tenacity.
“What struck me was just their resilience and independence and drive to do well and succeed and overcome their own challenges and to support their father,” he said.