Military veteran's family spared from homelessness by Martinez-based nonprofit

Driving big rigs loaded with food and supplies to soldiers in some of the deadliest war zones
in Iraq and Afghanistan, former Army Staff Sgt. Nelson Pareja experienced firsthand the horrors of combat.
He witnessed troops maimed by roadside bombs, worked under constant threat of mortar attacks and was
nearly shot accidentally by a fellow soldier while relaxing in his barracks.

"We were exposed to a lot of explosions," Pareja said. "When someone gets blown up, it's not a game
anymore, it's reality."

In the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, constantly under siege by enemy fighters armed with rocket
launchers and mortars, Pareja found himself unable to sleep at night and suffering from nightmares,
depression, anxiety and blackouts. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2013, he faced a
medical discharge before his Army commitment was up.

To make matters worse, Pareja and his family were living at Fort Hood, Texas, when a gunman went on a shooting rampage there in April. Pareja was on paternity leave at the time but was on base during the tragedy and knew two of the victims. Soon after, his symptoms worsened.

"It triggered something," Pareja said. "I had to get out of that place."

So as he prepared to transition out of the military in September, Nelson, his wife Aizza and three young children -- daughter Neish and sons Neo and Neijee -- packed up their belongings in a rental truck and headed for the Bay Area, where Nelson had lived for a time after moving from the Philippines and still had family.

However, the military pay he received barely covered the move and wasn't enough to afford an apartment. Bills began piling up, and the Parejas bounced around from house to house, staying with relatives, while their possessions sat in storage.

"It was overwhelming because you don't know what's going to happen," Pareja said. "(The military is) going to pay me for the rest of my life, but it's not enough. With my challenges, it's not like I'm going to have a job right away. ... You're kind of stuck."

Desperate and running out of options, he contacted the California Department of Veterans Affairs, which
referred him to the Martinez-based nonprofit Shelter Inc. of Contra Costa County.

With funds from the VA's Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, Shelter was able to get the
family into a modest apartment and paid their rent through January, allowing them an opportunity to get
back on their feet. The agency is one of 36 nonprofits participating in the Share the Spirit holiday
fundraising program.

"I was relieved," Pareja said. "Shelter is helping me stand up. They reached their hand out and said 'you
don't have to be down there.' They helped me a lot, and I'm really grateful."

For Nelson's wife, finding Shelter was a godsend for the family.

"They're a big help for us," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "If it weren't for them, I don't know where
we'd be right now."

The family is one of 665 households Shelter has helped through the veterans' program since its inception
in 2012. Because many returning soldiers have to wait weeks or months before they start receiving military pay, the program can serve as a bridge to self-sufficiency, said spokeswoman Chris Flitter.

"Their families may be struggling here," Flitter said. "They get discharged and then come back and don't
have a job. We can help pay that monthly rent or mortgage to get them ahead."

One of Shelter's missions is to see that all of Contra Costa County's veterans are housed by 2015. Through
the prevention program, the nonprofit has provided housing and services worth more than $650,000 to
homeless veterans and those at risk of homelessness. The efforts have made an impact -- countywide,
according to homeless counts, the number of veterans living on the streets dropped from 300 in 2011 to
158 in 2014, a 49 percent decline.

"We've made a pretty big dent in it," Flitter said.

But Shelter isn't just for veterans. The nonprofit has a year-round emergency homeless shelter with room for up to 20 families during the cold winter months. Families typically stay up to three months, after which they can be provided with transitional housing.

Last year, Flitter said, 97 percent of those helped through the homelessness prevention program -- which provides financial assistance for rent, car repairs, medical bills or any other expenses standing in the way of making ends meet -- were able to remain in their homes. Additionally, 76 percent of homeless families placed in temporary housing eventually moved into permanent homes.

Shelter receives about half of its funding from federal, state and local grants. However, the organization is
in desperate need of donations for its prevention program. Because of a lack of funds, the nonprofit recently has had to turn down applicants who otherwise qualified for assistance.

To qualify, veterans must have been discharged or released from service under conditions other than dishonorable, be making half of the median income or less, and be either at risk of losing their homes or already homeless. In most cases, qualifying families can secure emergency funds in a matter of days.

Besides financial assistance, Shelter also helps veterans find jobs, navigate their benefits and fill out paperwork.

"There's help; they just have to look for it," said case manager Martha Juarez. "Shelter is going to be there.
We'll be able to do whatever we can that's in our hands."


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