Homeless and on heroin, he wanted to die. Then this happened

On a sticky-hot August morning, for his first day of college, Jesse Dalla Riva got to the classroom early

He picked a seat in the second row, centered his laptop in front of him, placed a notebook to his right and waited.

The auditorium filled with backpacks and freshmen. Jesse's English professor offered advice on assignments and surviving the first year of college. Near the end of class, the professor asked students to share their fears.

Students across the room started raising their hands. Am I smart enough? Are the classes going to be hard? Will I like my dorm roommate?

Jesse never raised his hand. The 23-year-old etched notes on white paper and waited.

When class was over, he packed up and walked to the end of the hallway. He took a deep breath and sat on a purple sofa.

He had made it through his first college class.

"I was nervous," he said, smiling and glancing at people walking by.

Some students stopped to sit on nearby chairs, passing time between classes on their cellphones.

Jesse spoke loudly. If someone heard him, that would be OK, he said. Maybe, it was meant to be, he said.

The cross he wore on a thin silver chain hung low on his chest. He never touched it, but he was mindful it was there.

Fate and faith are something Jesse talks about a lot. Without both, he thinks he wouldn't be alive or in college.

A couple of years ago, Jesse was high on heroin. He lived in homeless shelters and then on the streets. He went to prison.

Strangers and family offered help, but he refused to listen. When he was offered drugs, he always said yes.

It starts with painkillers

If Jesse had to pick a moment when he first ached to feel numb, it would be after his parents divorced.

He was in elementary school. He said he learned to tune out his parents when they bad-mouthed each other. The first time he popped prescription painkillers, he was in high school in Florida.

"I thought it made me feel better," he said.

His mom gave him an ultimatum: Get clean or get out. Jesse said he had nowhere to go, so he agreed to a rehab that taught a 12-step program. He sat in the classes. Refused to admit he couldn't quit drugs. And wanted nothing to do with a power greater than himself.

"I blamed everyone else," he said.

In rehab, he met a man who owned a roofing company in Ohio. The man asked, would Jesse be willing to stay off drugs in return for a job? Jesse was 19 when he moved to Ohio.

Leaving was easy, he said. So was getting back on drugs. When he was fired, Jesse did what teenagers do: He called his mom. She wouldn't let him come home.

"She knew I was still using," he said.

Jesse's mom offered him a plane ticket. He agreed to go to a free halfway house in Phoenix to get help.

On the streets in Phoenix

Jesse's plane landed in Arizona on a cool January day in 2011.

In Phoenix, Jesse said he found drug addicts who hopscotched from the streets to open shelter beds and along the way shared drugs. He was living in a halfway house the first time someone offered him heroin. He was hooked, he said.

Jesse can't pinpoint the moment he got used to living on the streets. But soon he was camped out on the cracked concrete under the shade of a bridge in southeast Phoenix. The choking desert heat and the drugs made him feel crazy and lost.

"I stayed there for about a year," he said.

Most days, Jesse traveled across town by bus, rotating and spacing out the stores he would steal from. After several arrests for theft, in 2012 a judge sentenced Jesse to two years. He served time in a state prison in San Luis.

Jesse's mom sent letters. She told her son she loved him. She begged him to pray. It had been a long time, but with each letter, Jesse said he remembered what it was like to feel close to his mom.

"We rebuilt our relationship," he said.

But when Jesse was released in September 2013, he went back to a halfway house. This time, someone offered him methamphetamine.

It was a cheap, intense high, he said.

He wanted to die

Jesse's mom worried he was headed back to prison. He agreed to spend one night in a Phoenix detox center. There, he met a young woman, a former drug addict working at the center. She told Jesse about the Phoenix Rescue Mission rehab program. It's where she had found help.

Jesse thought their stories were similar. And it was easier, he said, to listen to someone who knew what it was like to be an addict.

He decided to turn himself in. He told his parole officer he was using drugs, but asked if she would agree to let him try Phoenix Rescue. The mission, on 35th Avenue south of Buckeye Road, offers rehab, job training, education programs, meals and religious teachings.

Jesse was high when he walked into the mission. He passed out on the ground. When he woke up, he still didn't want to give up drugs. But he also didn't want to go back to jail.

At night, Jesse laid in his bunk bed, tuning out the noise and wishing he were somewhere else.

He went to rehab classes and chapel services only because he had to. Without drugs, he said, he focused on his past, mistake after mistake, and fell into a deep depression.

He wanted to die.

One night, a few months after he arrived, he walked into the chapel and picked a seat in the second row of chairs. Mostly, he ignored the sermon. A message made him look up.

The pastor's eyes scanned the room. He said he was speaking to a stranger sitting among them.

"He said, ‘I'm here tonight because there's someone here thinking about killing themselves," Jesse said.

The message could have been for any one of the men, old and young. But Jesse felt the words were meant for him — that's all that mattered, he said.

After the sermon, Jesse spoke with the pastor. He told the man he wanted God in his life.

It would take more time before Jesse trusted in his faith and more healing before he trusted in himself. But from that point on, Jesse said he started going to church services because he wanted to be there.

Jesse said he liked studying the Bible, reading verses and stowing away passages for when he needed a lift. He said confessing his sins helped him let go of mistakes. He relied on rescue-mission mentors, and slowly he started over. And for the first time in years, Jesse said he wanted to live sober.

Soon Jesse joined the mission's leadership and ministry training. At first, he felt like a hypocrite. He'd always hated being told what to do. Now, he had to tell others at the mission how to live.

But he found that when he talked with addicts and told them about his past, they listened. Jesse would tell them he was once homeless, on heroin and wanted to die.

He wanted them to see beyond all their mistakes. Past where they stand today. And find hope.

This past summer, Jesse was still clean, living in transitional housing and attending leadership and ministry training when another visitor to the mission came with a message.

A new life

Brian Mueller, the president of Grand Canyon University, a private Christian campus in Phoenix, visited the mission to talk about a partnership through GCU and Phoenix Rescue. He promoted a full-ride college scholarship for people who are homeless.

A scholarship worth about $100,000.

"I knew right away I wanted it," Jesse said.

Jesse knew if he won the scholarship he would study social work. He dreamed about specializing in addiction counseling and working with men trying to turn their lives around at Phoenix Rescue.

Jesse sat down, wrote his story and asked for a chance.

"I kept writing and writing and writing," he said.

He sent drafts of the letter to friends, mentors and family. Everyone had an opinion. Jesse listened. He made a few adjustments, but this time, he had to trust in himself.

"I had to listen to myself," he said.

Jesse says that for him, faith is about believing in God and believing in your own ability to choose to live by your values. He thought about that when he was writing his six-page scholarship letter.

He turned in the letter, and he waited.

In July, a mentor at the mission sat him down. He told Jesse he'd won the scholarship. But Jesse didn't believe him.

"I had to see the e-mail myself," he said.

Jesse read the e-mail and smiled.

"I knew no one had worked harder than me," he says.

Jesse still works part-time at the mission helping men with job training and resumes. In September, the sun was blinding when Jesse got out of class.

He said he's still scared of failing. And, sometimes, he's scared of relapsing. Little signs make him feel OK.

"I go to class, and I've done way more than anyone else," he said.

He was practically speed-walking across campus, pointing out buildings on the way to the dorm room he shares. In his room, on his desk, is a mishmash of school supplies he bought and toiletries that were a gift from mission friends.

He pointed to a twin-size bed against the wall. That one, he said, is his. On his desk, next to a framed photo of his family, is something from his mom.

Jesse picked up the sand-colored token, about the size of a paperweight. Etched into it are three words and a cross.

"Love never fails."

Dianna M. Náñez writes about stories in Arizona and the rest of the world that make us believe in humanity, faith, hope and love. Drop her a line about your community's superheroes. You know the ones – kind, resilient, empathetic people making small miracles happen.

Follow her on Twitter: @diannananez.


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