The first time I saw Desiree Salazar, I was pretty sure it also would be the last time I saw her. Breathing anyway.
I figured I’d pick up a copy of The Sacramento Bee one day and see a story about how the woman with “F--- CPS” tattooed on her neck had been found dead, maybe under a tree on the American River Parkway or in some dingy hotel room with a needle still stuck in her arm.
That’s how bad off Salazar was in December when we met at a midtown Starbucks to talk about her son Sivam Lekh. At only 5 months old, he was the youngest person to die without permanent housing in Sacramento County last year.
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Technically, Sivam passed away a few, heartbreaking days before Thanksgiving in 2014. But it was close enough for homeless advocates, who decided to read his name aloud during a memorial service for other, mostly wizened people who had died in shelters or on the streets.
Salazar had nothing to do with Sivam’s death – he died of SIDS in foster care – but she had a lot to do with the sad status of his short life.
In long, rambling sentences, she recounted how they bounced from shelters to the streets to apartments with dangerous men. Her face was scarred with freshly picked scabs, the black tattoos on her cheeks and forehead making her appear an almost sickly yellow. Decades of trauma, mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness had obviously taken their toll.
Public records show Salazar has been in multiple abusive relationships, has been arrested multiple times and has had multiple children removed by Child Protective Services. Sivam was one of those children – removed after she tested positive for pot and meth, violating her probation.
His death sent Salazar over the edge with grief and rage at CPS. She became suicidal and, with nowhere else to go, was sleeping on the banks of the Sacramento River. She hoped the lights from the trail on the Yolo County side would protect her.
“I felt like dying every time I slept out there,” she said.
Many people would call Salazar a lost cause, someone who doesn’t deserve help. And I can certainly understand the anger on behalf of little Sivam. But with so many chronically homeless people living in Sacramento and other cities across California, many of them broken since childhood, with big mistakes making their lives even harder, giving up isn’t really an option.
The men and women who spend years sleeping under the same bridge, and have rap sheets a mile long for things like drug possession, public intoxication and illegal camping – people who’ve burned many bridges in their lifetimes, and now rebuff or blow every shot at getting help – they’re like the walking dead, and society treats them as such.
But Salazar is a survivor, with the survivor’s guilt to match.
Her road to redemption was long and twisted – she says it began with the attention that followed being in The Bee – but today, she is living at Martin Luther King Jr. Village, a gated permanent supportive housing complex in south Sacramento.
She has a small, one-bedroom cottage all to herself. She attends Narcotics Anonymous classes. She takes shots to keep her anxiety and other mental disorders under control. She owns a dog and often takes care of a friend’s dog most days. They guard her like pit bulls, even though they’re tiny balls of fluff.
The change is remarkable. Conversations with her aren’t as disjointed. She dislikes but no longer hates CPS, and her skin is starting to clear up. She has goals. And this is only after a few months.
“Now that I have a house, I go to therapy, I go get my shots, and instead of being put back out on the streets and have to suffer that way, I get to come back in here and lay down. I can shut the world out.”
She paused, shaking her head. “Some people think it’s hard to believe after such a long time, but I can’t go back to that.” I hope she’s right.
We sat in her small living room and talked about what lies ahead.
A job. “There’s a pastor who can help me get a job.” It would be at Walmart. She’s thinking she wants to start with a few hours per week.
A career. She wants to volunteer at a shelter. “My son, he died being homeless. He was in foster care, but he didn’t have a specific place to live.”
An apartment. “This program is indefinite for some people,” she said of her apartment, provided by Mercy Housing and Turning Point Community Services, “but I don’t plan to stay longer than two years.”
And those tattoos – “F--- CPS” and “CPS Killer” on her neck, and the names of her children, including “Sivam” on her forehead.
“I recently asked my doctor, what about tattoo removal? Now that I’ve been clean and sober for a minute, I’m looking at myself, and I know I must have been really high to think scarring my face like this would give me any kind of compensation for my son dying or my children dying.”
Photos of Sivam, blowing spit bubbles through a grin or staring with wide-eyed curiosity, are on every wall in Salazar’s apartment, shrine-style. She says it helps her cope. It helps her stay clean. I say whatever works.
Some might say Salazar isn’t worth saving. Or they assumed, as I did last December, that she’d probably never get this far. But Salazar is proof that, with the right help at the right time, even lost causes can be saved.
It’s still a little unreal to her.
“Just recently, I ate at Joe’s Crab Shack and I started crying,” Salazar said, describing her view from the restaurant’s windows across the Sacramento River. “I was just sleeping over there a couple months ago, and now I have a house.”