FAIRFIELD — The first few days out of prison for Francis Cunanan were spent in homeless shelters.
While he was happy to be free after three years in county jail and prison, he never planned to be shipped around to local churches at night while volunteering during the day.
Because he arrived at Mission Solano late in the week, he needed to return Monday and take care of some paperwork before being admitted to the Rays of Hope program.
Cunanan said he had to make a decision to change his course, to reject thoughts of taking the easy route and going back to his life of crime. Essentially, he started over and gave himself to whatever Mission Solano’s program had in store for him.
“I kept saying ‘I can’t believe I’m in a homeless shelter.’ I thought about leaving. But if I went back to Vallejo, I’m going to start using again,” Cunanan said. “I was willing to change. If you’re not willing to change, it’s not going to happen.”
He thought about how easy it would be to hook back up with his friends. It wouldn’t take long to get a laptop computer, a printer and whatever other tools he needed for identity theft and check counterfeiting.
When he was finally arrested the last time in Napa near the end of 2008, he had a record in nearly every surrounding county. He’d been locked up and let out so many times he has to stop and think about each stint at a jail, even confusing them at times.
Fueled by an insatiable habit of crystal methamphetamine, he forged checks to get cash or goods. He stole identities while “ripping and running.” His weight dropped, staying up days at a time.
He lost the trust of family members along the way. His mom gave him a car and money to find a job. After having trouble finding anyone who would hire someone on probation, he up and left. Cunanan returned to his life, which led him back to a familiar place.
Cunanan thought of the 50-year-olds in prison. He knew by jumping back into the game, it would mean being locked up again. He knew that if he showed up begging, his mother couldn’t refuse to help. Then again, he knew that would only be temporary.
“I did this to myself. I need to get myself out,” he said. “Is that the kind of life I want?”
The kind of life he wanted was the one he gave up.
Cunanan came to America in 1999 from the Philippines. He talks about working two jobs. He drove a truck for 7-Up in the day and worked as a part-time server at Chevy’s at night. He lived comfortably, often working too much to be able to spend the money he made.
That all changed when he met a woman who introduced him to drugs, he said. It didn’t take long before he was messing up at work and quitting when his bosses started asking tough questions about his behavior, opting for a life of crime instead.
When the Daily Republic first met Cunanan, it was his second day in the program and his fifth day of freedom. He spoke with brutal honesty of his past and how he was ashamed, his shyness mixed with a gentle calm. Cunanan desperately wanted to build something new.
“When I got here, I was broken. I had nowhere to go,” he said. “The first month was a lot of listening. A lot of adjusting. You don’t know what the results are going to be. You don’t know if it’s worth it.”
That first weekend was spent hanging in the smoking area of the Mission Solano parking lot. He wasn’t smoking, though, just passing time. Cunanan made the choice while still in prison to give up cigarettes, knowing that one vice would likely lead to more.
His first trip into society was a walk with another man at the shelter. They walked down to the CVS pharmacy to fill the man’s prescription. While waiting, Cunanan was filled with anxiety because of all the people walking around him.
When a woman approached him, which he later said was to possibly get his phone number, his paranoia took over.
“She came up and asked me something about her phone,” he said. “I put my hands up. I said ‘I don’t know you. I didn’t touch your phone. Leave me alone.’ ”
His first purchased meal was a Subway sandwich. He brightened, describing the first bites of something not made in a mess hall or shelter.
Shedding the prison mentality was also a challenge. Being segregated by race and constantly being on guard came natural to him.
“For two and a half years, you can’t talk to any white boys,” he said. “But I’m not in prison. No one is trying to get over on me.”
At Mission Solano, Cunanan was placed in the house with nine men from a variety of races and backgrounds. He sleeps in a small room, sharing it with another man. One of the first jobs he got was cleaning the bathroom. Then came cleaning the kitchen. After that was cooking.
As part of the program, a one-month blackout period is enforced. He was confined to Mission Solano activities only and most contact with the outside world was cut off for 30 days.
He began meetings: Narcotics Anonymous three times a week, Bible studies twice a week. He also attended a recovery group twice a week, where other men shared their stories and struggles.
Right about this time is when Cunanan started his devout Christianity. He said the only time he prayed was when the police were behind him or he was in a cell. Cunanan soon jumped feet first into religion.
Those principles would guide him through the next six months and help center him when he strays. Cunanan now works Scripture or a Bible story into most of his conversations about recovery.
“Basically, I’m walking on water right now. When I get off course, I ask for help,” he said, referring to Matthew 22. “Right now, I feel like God is opening doors for me.”
Reach Danny Bernardini at 427-6935 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dbernardinidr.