New path, new home

Jeff vonKaenel

I have seen some unusual tattoos, but I cannot say I have ever seen anything quite like Paul Sousa’s. Shortly after the ribbon-cutting ceremony for his new Habitat for Humanity home, Paul and I were sitting on the floor of his empty bedroom talking about his strange journey. It started on a block in North Sacramento, where his mother was beaten by her boyfriend. And today, he and his wife, Jen, and their two boys are moving into a LEED-certified home.

Paul said his journey was defined by this neighborhood. He felt so strongly about the neighborhood’s impact on his life that he got a North Sacramento tattoo to remind him where he came from. I asked if I could see it. Paul lifted up the back of his shirt and there it was. In bold, 6-inch block letters with a bricklike motif, it read “North Sac.”

As a teenager, North Sac was the place where Paul used to run across the freeway at rush hour to get to middle school. Middle school is where he first started taking drugs. Later, Paul dropped out of school so he “could shoot drugs and commit crimes.” He began a life of homelessness, crashing wherever he could. And he did drugs. Lots of drugs. His heroin and cocaine habits cost him up to $400 per day.

“Yea, I was doing both,” Paul explained. “I had the gorilla on my back. And the gorilla told me to rob banks.”

This turned out to be bad advice. Paul was a failed bank robber and had to serve time. Lots of time. Paul was in and out of prison eight or nine times, starting at the age of 22, serving time at Folsom, San Quentin and Vacaville. Finally, Paul made a critical decision. He could go to prison for another four years, or he could get involved in a drug-rehab program. He made the decision to turn his life around.

His path took him through many of Sacramento’s recovery organizations, including Sacramento Recovery House, Quinn Cottages, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency housing. During this time, he met his wife, Jen, who was also in recovery.

Getting a Habitat house was not easy for Paul and Jen. They had to complete 500 hours of sweat equity, while working full time and taking care of two kids. While Paul and I were sitting together in his new house, Paul’s 18-month-old towhead Jayce came into the room. Jayce, with a grin as wide as all outdoors, ran over to sit down next to his dad. Paul told me that his son would never see him as a wild drug addict. And his son’s memories of this North Sacramento neighborhood will include a devoted father and a LEED-certified Habitat home. Sweet.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.