He was dwelling in a termite-infested storage shed in Vallejo. Season of Sharing helped him pay for ‘a way of freedom’

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He was living in a termite-infested storage shed in Vallejo. Season of Sharing helped him pay for ‘a sense of freedom’

In 2015, Daniel Rivera spent months in his trailer with little to no sleep, unaware that he was in the midst of a manic episode stemming from his undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

The condition cost him his job as a manager at a local Cinnabon, and he had no health insurance. So he endured the cycle of insomnia, euphoria, and fatigue to the point where Rivera also lost his life savings and the house he lived in for a decade after being evicted from his trailer park.

He spent the following months in his car, confused by his symptoms and falling into a “deep depression”. For almost six years, he rented a small storage shed in the backyard of a house in Vallejo. The shed was in terrible condition and not intended for anyone to live in. But at $300 a month, it was what he could afford in the town he grew up in and never left.

Seven years after his eviction, Rivera is on a more stable footing.

Rivera is in recovery and has been sober for three years from marijuana, which he used to cope with his depression and bipolar disorder. And he can now focus more on his mental health after moving into a one-bedroom apartment in Vacaville this summer with help from The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund.

The Season of Sharing Fund works year-round to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. All donations benefit those in need directly, with administrative costs being met by The Chronicle and Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

Daniel Rivera checks a motorcycle inherited from his father as it stands in front of his new home in Vacaville, California on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. After decades of living in unstable or interim housing, Rivera now lives comfortably in his own apartment in Vacaville.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Rivera had to pay $3,000 to secure his home, and the Season of Sharing Fund is “one of the few programs that we have here in Solano County that covers bail,” said Zaire Persley-Hurt, Rivera’s case manager.

Persley-Hurt, a case manager at the Vacaville Police Department’s Family Resource Center, said the need for programs like Season of Sharing has skyrocketed since rents rose “enormously” during the pandemic.

Deposits for an apartment, which can cost up to $10,000 in Solano County depending on your credit rating, are one of the top barriers to escaping homelessness and improving personal health, Persley-Hurt said.

“Here’s the thing — you can’t work on your mental or physical health or any other issues if you don’t have stable housing,” she said. “I have several clients who are homeless or without a place to stay and they keep saying, ‘I can’t focus on my mental health, I can’t go to a therapist or anything if I’m constantly worrying about where I’m going sleep tonight.’”

Rivera was living in the shed when he received his bipolar diagnosis in 2019.

The Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund: Since its inception in 1986, the Season of Sharing Fund has distributed $177 million to help Bay Area residents with critical needs. Administrative expenses are borne by The San Francisco Chronicle and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. To donate, visit www.seasonofsharing.org/donate.

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The circumstances of his life made it difficult for him to focus on his mental health.

The 9.5-by-10-foot shed, owned by a “very toxic” landlord, was only big enough for a bed, a mini-fridge and a few essentials, Rivera said. Rodents infested the shed over the years and ate Rivera’s food. The floor was uneven and made of wooden panels. Termites ate on the walls.

The shed had electricity but no running water. The landlord, who lived in the estate’s home, placed strict restrictions on how and when Rivera could use the home’s kitchen and restroom.

“I lived in this place that was really bad,” Rivera said. “At least it was a roof over your head.”

When Rivera moved out of the Vallejo shed, he was paying $450 a month in rent, reflecting a $150 increase in the initial rent. A storage fee for the motorcycle Rivera inherited from his father, whom Rivera cared for before he died of cancer, added to the monthly rent. Rivera’s landlord again increased the rent by $75 a month for shoddy “floor repairs,” Rivera said.

Rivera secured a Section 8 voucher earlier this year but found it “extremely difficult” to find affordable housing. An apartment complex in southwest Vacaville accepted his application after nearly four months of searching.

A friend in Rivera’s recovery program introduced him to the nonprofit Resource Connect Solano, which put him in touch with Persley-Hurt. Season of Sharing and a local church helped cover most of the down payment. Rivera used some of his life savings to pay for the remaining $200.

Walking through his apartment for the first time in June, Rivera was overcome with relief, happiness and “a sense of freedom,” he said.

The kitchen and living room offered ample space for his groceries and belongings. The toilet was his, meaning he no longer has to store his toiletries in a plastic bag like he used to do in the shed.

Four months after moving in, Rivera is still working on furnishing the apartment. But with a place of his own, he’s now able to do what he hasn’t been able to do for the past seven years: prioritize his health and recovery.

“That freedom is just a great feeling to have,” Rivera said.

Ricardo Cano is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: ricardo.cano@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByRicardoCano