SANTA CRUZ -- Tom Sousa couldn't be more grateful this Christmas Day, though at first glance, many might wonder why.
The 38-year-old former methamphetamine user is living in a homeless shelter and has to undergo frequent dialysis to treat a severe, progressive kidney disease. He isn't healthy enough to work.
But for the first time in a while, Sousa has stable housing. He doesn't have to hustle for motel money, sleep in his car or crash on someone's couch.
He also is celebrating a year of sobriety on Christmas Day after years of turning to speed. And best of all, he is living with his two sons, paving the way for the better life he has always dreamed of for them and himself.
"All I ever wanted was to be with my kids," he said of the 11- and 12-year-old boys -- "Irish twins," he calls them. For two months, they have shared a one-bedroom apartment with him at the Rebele Family Shelter on the Homeless Services Center campus on Coral Street, where they can stay another four months.
"That was the saving grace of everything," he said, describing his fortune in getting a room at the wait-listed shelter. "I went from having nothing to someone saying, 'Here let me help you.' I've never had it like that."
A stocky man with tattoos and short-cropped hair, Sousa's eyes well up with tears as he talks about his transitional life at the shelter, where it's rare for safety reasons to see a single dad with young sons. A more typical family at the shelter is a single mother with younger children, some of whom have escaped an abusive relationship.
But shelter workers knew Sousa needed a stable living environment to reunite with his children, lay the groundwork for permanent housing, stay away from drugs and maintain a regimen of care for his kidneys.
Sousa's story is also the kind that easily gets lost in the polarized debate about homelessness in Santa Cruz, what role the Homeless Services Center plays and how much city funding should support it. There are critics who believe its free meals and other services act as a magnet for chronic, often drug-fueled transience.
But for Sousa, and 91 other families who have stayed at the shelter so far this year, it has been a lifeline.
"It's really important that Tom and his kids aren't released on to the street or to their car because that isn't sustainable," said Monica Martinez, the center's executive director. "Also, particularly given his health condition, you're putting your life at risk and your kids' future at risk."
Already receiving government disability income, Sousa is waiting to be approved for federal housing assistance and, due to his illness, is now on a list of the most vulnerable homeless people in Santa Cruz County awaiting housing.
The 180/180 program, launched this past spring, is part of a new collaboration by the Homeless Services Center and other social services providers to tackle homelessness by finding "permanent supportive housing," which is rental housing coupled with case management to ensure other aspects of a person's life also remain stable.
The program -- named for its July 2014 goal of turning around the lives of 180 people by 180 degrees -- has housed 16 people since May with six more expected to get a place next month.
"There is a link between people who are homeless and the frequency of using local hospitals," Martinez said. "That is very costly and increases when people are living on the street. We are really trying to break a cycle and get families connected to housing."
Sousa said he has used drugs off and on for many years, but one point got sober enough to attend school and work at a detoxification center for several years before relapsing. He eventually sought help from Janus of Santa Cruz, a substance abuse program that he said taught him for the first time to forgive himself for mistakes he'd made.
After graduating from Janus, he moved into a sober-living house and later tried co-parenting with the mother of his children, Stacy Nail, but it didn't work out. After the home Nail was living in was foreclosed on and she became homeless temporarily, Sousa got the chance to take care of their boys, Thomas and Lucas.
"If I hadn't come here," Sousa said of the center, "I don't know where I'd be or where my kids would be."
Nail called the shelter a form of "divine intervention" for Sousa, and said she was glad her sons are in a stable place.
"He's never been able to develop a relationship with the boys," she said.
Follow Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmbrownreports
HOW TO HELP
To learn more about or donate to the 180/180 program that provides permanent supportive housing and other services to the most vulnerable homeless people in Santa Cruz County, visit www.180santacruz.org.