When I first heard about Antonio Carrion, it was hard to see anything hopeful in his story. An incandescent high school football star from a hard-luck home in south LA in the early 1990s, he seemed to have a rare chance to escape the streets and go on to a career in the NFL. But just as he was getting ready to go to college, mental illness took hold. Schizophrenia unglued Antonio’s mind, derailed his dreams, and ultimately left him homeless on Skid Row. He spent years on the streets, cycling in and out of jail, his crippling disorder left untreated—just like tens of thousands of other mentally ill homeless people in this city and across the country.
Even reporting Antonio’s story was difficult. We worked on it for well over a year, since one of Antonio’s former parole officers told producer Karen Foshay about Antonio. He was hard to find, and harder to film. He was too paranoid to let a camera get close to him, so Karen once had to surreptitiously record him on her iPhone; another time, a hidden cameraman with a zoom lens filmed him from a block away. Then Antonio was arrested, as he has been many times before, and locked up in the Twin Towers jail complex downtown. The sheriff’s department, which runs the jail, wouldn’t let us interview him there. The best we’ve been able to do since then is to have a few brief, staticky conversations via jailhouse phone with a highly distracted Antonio.
Many of the other tools we journalists typically rely on to dig up information also proved useless. Antonio’s arrest records are sealed. Some of his court records have been destroyed. Some of his old friends and teammates wouldn’t talk to us. A couple that promised they would backed out of several planned meetings at the last minute. After months of trying, we finally gave up on them.
We wouldn’t have been able to tell this story at all, in fact, if we hadn’t had the help of a critical ally—someone who has, not coincidentally, also been Antonio’s most important ally for many, many years: his mother, Stephanie Nieves. Stephanie’s own story is no less dramatic than her son’s. As a young woman, she took to robbing banks to fund her heroin addiction. That career choice wound her up with a TK year sentence in federal prison at age TK.
But that wasn’t the end for her. After almost 20 years behind bars, Stephanie finally got out, came home, and turned her life completely around. She is now clean, sober, working two jobs—and completely devoted to rescuing her son. When he was homeless, she trawled the streets to find him and bring him food and clothes. When he was in jail, she worked with his public defenders and parole officers to try to get him the help he needed. As if she didn’t have her hands full already, she has also spent countless hours helping us out—sitting for interviews, letting us film her in court and on the street, and vouching for us to Antonio’s relatives and friends.
In October, to launch the new season of several shows, including SoCal Connected, KCET threw a fancy party in a stylishly converted old bank in downtown LA. Stephanie and her husband came. I had to laugh at the irony of it—the former bank robber partying in the former bank. But it was more than that. There she was, an ex-junkie and ex-convict, posing for pictures on the red carpet, resplendent in a form-fitting evening gown, a life utterly transformed. Her troubles, and Antonio’s, are far from over. But their story turns out to have its share of hope after all.