Vela, she said, "didn't need all of that garbage in her record holding onto her and pulling her down. I thought that if she got off of all this, it would free her. And it did."
Vela was born in an apartment in Dallas and raised by her grandmother in Colorado, who has Alzheimer's. She started couchsurfing when she was a teenager, and eventually ended up on the streets, where she began experimenting with drugs and found herself in and out of jail.
Despite finding friends who valued her for who she was, Vela said she was consistently "oppressed" by men.
However, in a testimony she provided to fund-raise for the trip, Vela said she wanted to change her life and get off the streets. She said that she wanted to travel and eventually go to art school and start a family.
As an art lover, Vela told CNA that her favorite part about the trip to Rome was just walking through the streets and seeing the city.
"I think the city is so beautiful. I love how the ruins in the forum are combined with these old looking buildings. It's nothing like the United States. And the people are so interesting. It's a beautiful place."
She was also a big fan of St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, especially the Sistine Chapel. "That church was beautiful, so beautiful," she said, referring to St. Peter's.
Vela and Cangelosi also had front row tickets to the May 9 general audience with Pope Francis, meaning they got to shake his hand after the event ended.
Although she is not a believer, Vela said the pope is "a really nice guy" and "really sweet." He listened as she told him about her father, who considers himself spiritual but not religious, but who loves Pope Francis. Vela said she got a blessing and a rosary from the pope that she will give to her father.
This year the Denver Homeless Ministry pilgrimage was joined by Paul Spotts, who runs Catholic Young Adult Sports (CYAS), and 10 young adults from Colorado.
Cangelosi, who met Spotts through some of the CYAS events, said he approached her last fall saying he wanted to take a group to Rome, and that he wanted to invite a homeless person to travel with them. Cangelosi told CNA that she said yes because "I wanted Nina to experience being around people her age who are working and have graduated from college."
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"Hopefully that is something that will stick in her mind in the future," she said, adding that having Vela with them was also "a life-changing experience" for the other young adults who came, since they had never really spent time with a homeless person before.
In her comments to CNA, Vela said that while the group dynamic was hard, she bonded with some of the people in the group, and felt respected.
Now working at a coffee roaster, and with housing lined up for the future, Vela said she doesn't know what the future will hold, but is grateful to have had the opportunity to come to Rome.
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.