A brand-new mattress has become the ultimate symbol of success for Sam and Michelle Zozoya.
It may not seem like much. But that mattress, one of the couple’s first major purchases together, means a lot considering where they came from and what they’ve been through together.
The Review-Journal first met the couple in December, when they were mourning the death of their 49-day-old daughter from a congenital virus, respiratory and liver failure.
At the time, they lived in a stuffy 100-square-foot room at the downtown Dragon Hotel, a temporary home found for them by homeless outreach workers.
Not long before that, the couple was living in a tent in a homeless encampment at Boulder Highway and Russell Road, using methamphetamine and scraping for food money.
For them, the never-been-used mattress is a small miracle.
“No one else has ever slept on it,” Michelle said proudly last week while showing off the couple’s roomy new one-bedroom apartment on 15th Street. “We bought it — we bought everything in here — ourselves.”
The couple’s journey from homelessness and drug abuse to sobriety and self-sufficiency, all while dealing with the loss of a child, has made them a symbol of success for those who help the homeless.
“It’s overwhelming to watch,” said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program that worked with the Zozoyas. “It’s what keeps you going every day.”
Their first meeting about five years ago was an inauspicious one: Sam sold Michelle some drugs.
Becoming parents was the furthest thing from either of their minds.
But one day a few years later, while living in the desert, Michelle injured her knee in a fall. At the hospital, she was given a pregnancy test and learned she was about a month along.
“It was a total surprise,” she said.
The unplanned pregnancy motivated the Zozoyas in a way nothing else had over at least a decade of abusing drugs. They got straight.
Michelle immediately applied for Medicaid and began receiving prenatal care. The couple, though, remained homeless until she was about five months along, when a friend got them involved with Straight from the Streets.
They began the long transition out of homelessness.
“These are people whose mistakes just caught them up into something they couldn’t get out of,” Lera-Randle El said. “You have to allow them their failures and you can’t judge. They are still human beings.”
Lera-Randle El said pulling people like the Zozoyas out of homelessness requires intense case management and a deep commitment from those who want the help.
“Otherwise, you’re not going to make it.”
The Zozoyas showed that kind of commitment.
“For me, it was the baby,” Michelle, now 36, said.
“I just wanted more,” Sam, 30, said. “I got tired of living like that.”
It wasn’t long, though, before the couple got some devastating news. Michelle had unknowingly passed a virus, called Cytomegalovirus or CMV, along to the baby. While usually relatively harmless, the virus can cause liver problems and even death.
Their baby girl was born September 27, 2006, nearly two months premature and weighing just 3 pounds, 8 ounces.
The couple named the baby Realitie, after what they felt like they were finally facing for the first time in years.
The baby spent her entire 49 days of life in the hospital, struggling to combat the virus. The Zozoyas were at the hospital every day. They had the baby baptized, and invited long-estranged family members to visit. Michelle patched up a rocky relationship with her own mother in the process.
Realitie died Nov. 14. Homeless outreach workers dedicated to the baby December’s annual vigil for homeless people who died during the year.
Meanwhile, still mourning, the Zozoyas continued their program to get off the streets.
They attended substance abuse and mental health counseling, completed mandated volunteer work, underwent job training and started saving money. Their commitment impressed outreach workers.
“Very few people, even in stable situations, are able to even get out of bed after the devastation they went through: having a child that passed away, let alone dealing with substance abuse, mental health problems, trying to get up every day,” Lera-Randle El said.
Today, Michelle works full-time for HELP of Southern Nevada. She attends night classes so that she can earn her General Educational Development certificate, or GED.
Sam works at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where he cleans up at the visitor’s center and along the scenic loop.
In July, the couple got married in a local church.
They signed a year-long lease and have begun paying their own bills, including $535 in monthly rent.
“I’m pretty proud of us,” Michelle said. “We’re doing good.”
She baked a cake on Thursday in honor of Realitie, who she thinks about every day.
“She would have been 1 year old.”
A picture of Realitie rests on the couple’s newly purchased entertainment center, which Sam put together himself.
The couple said following a program to self-sufficiency often has been difficult. But they feel it was more than fair.
“They don’t let you mess them around,” Sam said. “They make you do what you say you’re going to do. They take people they don’t know off the street and they’re paying for it.”
Lera-Randle El said there are “a lot of Sammy and Michelles out there” who need help. It’s particularly challenging for homeless, unmarried couples, she said, because few homeless programs allow them to stay together.
“There’s nowhere to house couples,” she said. “They have to separate and go into separate treatment programs. But they need to be together.”
Though the Zozoyas are becoming more and more independent, Lera-Randle El said she expects Straight from the Streets to remain in touch with them.
“We become an extension of family,” she said. “We went to their wedding, to the funeral of their baby. You can’t help but wonder always how they are.”
Sam and Michelle now hope to buy a car someday, maybe even their own home. But they don’t take anything for granted, Sam said.
“I can remember being homeless. I remember where we came from, and I know it can go away just like that.”