A painter, a dishwasher and waiter, a cook – the list goes on. Antonio has been a lot of things in his 63 years. Five weeks ago, he added something else to the list of things he has been and is – housed. But Antonio also knows he is something else, an alcoholic.
The label has followed him around most of his life. An addiction that has torn him down again and again - burying him in a cycle of homelessness, despite having a laundry list of useful trade skills and experience.
Born in Laredo, Texas to an immigrant mother, Antonio has U.S. citizenship, despite spending most of his childhood in Coahuila, Mexico. He has five children in Mexico – his oldest was born when he was just 15 years old. He hasn't seen or heard from his kids in nearly 40 years. His mother sent him back to the U.S. to get his life together and earn money to take care of his family.
Antonio has been unhoused for decades, but only in the past few years has he been unsheltered. Antonio's list of useful trade skills kept him employed and the income paid for motel rooms – first in Reno and then in Sacramento. But Antonio's alcohol addiction and the subsequent blackouts and fighting that came along with excessive drinking meant he never stayed at one job for long.
Antonio's propensity for brawling when drunk introduced him to something else – the criminal justice system. Antonio has been arrested numerous times for assault and disorderly conduct.
His time in jail shaped many aspects of his life, but one particular stretch of more than a year changed his life and the life of his longtime girlfriend, Tonya.
Tonya was also an addict, but her addiction was meth and heroin. They met in Reno 20 years ago, at a casino. Antonio spent much of his hard-earned money on gambling, and Tonya liked the ambiance of the casino floor. A brutal injury caused by a hammer, left her leg shattered and started her addiction to pain pills.
“She was so beautiful," says Antonio. "She had long blond hair, blue eyes and a great smile. Even on the pills and the drugs, she was always so beautiful. People would ask her why she was with me – a Mexican, and she would get so mad at them. We took care of each other. We vowed that even though we were homeless, we'd always be clean – our bodies and wherever we lived."
Antonio's Community Health Worker from Sacramento Covered, Jenny, agrees. “Antonio is always clean, his clothes, his body and his living space – whether a spot on the sidewalk or Parkway, a motel room, a tent or now – his apartment. Now we just need to get him clean from the alcohol."
Antonio first met Jenny through Tonya. Tonya was Jenny's client – housed in 2019 with her dog Ryder, a short, chubby beagle mix. Tonya got him as a puppy eight years ago, rescued from some fellow unhoused neighbors that were torturing him with a bag on his head. Tonya literally wrestled Ryder out of their hands and ran.
Ryder gave both Tonya and Antonio a greater sense of purpose. He needed love, food and protection. In return, Ryder gave them unconditional love and protection as well.
Antonio reflects on what has kept him in the cycle of homelessness for so long. “The alcohol. It has always been the alcohol. I'd be offered help, but I had to stay sober, and I didn't want to then. I'd be doing ok, and then I'd get arrested for fighting one night after I blacked out."
Antonio's goal was to get Tonya sober. When they lived in Reno, to help Tonya get and stay clean, Antonio confronted her drug dealer – requesting that he stay away from where they were staying. Antonio was determined to support her efforts to stay clean in any way possible. But the very next day, Antonio returned after a day of work and a few drinks to find the drug dealer back at their motel.
Anger overtook Antonio and he rushed the dealer – biting him and causing significant injuries. Despite his good intentions, Antonio went to jail for a year, convicted for assault with a deadly weapon. All progress Tonya had made to get clean was lost without Antonio there to support her and unfettered access to drugs.
When he was released from prison, her addiction was worse than ever.
Shortly after Antonio was released, Tonya and Antonio decided to make a change. They moved to Sacramento. It was in Sacramento that Tonya met Jenny – her Sacramento Covered Community Health Worker. Jenny worked tirelessly to get Tonya help – both with her addiction and to secure housing.
Once Tonya and Ryder were housed, Antonio was able to come stay with them and try to stabilize.
Antonio tears up as he talks about Tonya. Tonya passed in 2022, leaving behind two decades of love and her dog Ryder. Ryder and a large photo of Tonya – printed out from a computer - is all he has left of her.
Unfortunately, the housing was Tonya's, not Antonio's, so both he and Ryder were back on the streets. Ryder and drinking were his constant companions. He bounced around to different areas, sleeping outside – including City Hall, where all his belongings, including his tent were stolen.
In late 2022, Antonio found himself at Miller Park, a sanctioned campground run by First Step Communities and funded by the City of Sacramento. As Antoinio walked in with Ryder, he heard someone say “Oh my gosh, is that Ryder?!" As Ryder bolted forward, tail wagging, Antonio recognized Jenny, but she did not recognize him. The days and months without Tonya had taken toll.
Antonio started riding Regional Transit and volunteering for the Downtown Streets Team – a group run by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, that cleans up the streets of downtown, providing both purpose and useful gift cards to people living unhoused.
He kept his tent at Miller Park spotless, a tribute to his promise to Tonya. Ryder made friends with everyone; some called him their mascot.
Once again, Antonio's drinking forfeited stability and safety – he had to leave Miller Park and moved onto the Parkway. Jenny worked to keep in touch, but Antonio was constantly losing his phone or it was stolen along with most of his possessions. He visited Loaves and Fishes daily for meals and a shower. During the storms in January 2023, a tree fell on Antonio's tent, narrowly missing where he and Ryder laid their heads. After his acute brush with death, Antonio knew they needed to make a change – for good this time.
In late 2022, Sacramento Covered was funded by Sacramento County American Resue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to hire 10 Community Health Workers solely dedicated to outreach on the American River Parkway. Jenny was one of the 10. She found Antonio and Ryder near the Pipe Bridge Trail. She worked with Antonio to make sure all his documents were in line, that Ryder was seen by a vet and that he was truly ready to come inside – once and for all. In July 2023, Antonio and Ryder moved into their apartment.
Antonio connected with an outpatient service counselor through One Community Health. He is now nearly a month sober. He is determined to stay that way. He wants to stay clean for Ryder – he needs him. And for Tonya, for her memory and for the hope she always had for the two of them. He keeps that printed-out photo on a clipboard in his living room, right next to a photo of Jesus and covering a thick envelope of important documents. His handwriting, an eloquent mix of cursive and calligraphy says, “My Personal Papers."
Antonio still visits Loaves and Fishes. He still travels Downtown three days a week to volunteer for the Street Team. He would like to get a car so he can drive himself around. He wants to start cooking for himself – Jenny is helping him get groceries and basic kitchen supplies like pots and pans.
“I'm a really good cook! Next time you come, I'll make you enchiladas. I can make fish and meat."
Jenny takes inventory of the rest of Antonio's apartment – he needs curtains and a kitchen table. Move in costs, and basic housewares are all part of the County's mission to rehouse the unhoused and set them up for success.
What does Antonio want to do now that he is housed and four weeks sober? “I want to improve myself for good. I want to help other people. I need to take care of myself. Ryder needs me. I want to reconnect with my family, with my kids. I want to know my kids. They don't even know I'm alive.
I want to get my contractor's license so I can do work and help other people get work."
Antonio thinks about what he would say to people that thought he would never make it – “Be kind. Work hard and take advantage of the resources offered to you. People eventually learn from their mistakes, hopefully before it is too late."