David Ambroz sheds light on childhood poverty, homelessness newstrendslive

David Ambroz’s gorgeous new memoir, “A Place Called Home,” begins in Manhattan at Christmas. He and his mom and two older siblings are trudging through the streets on a bitterly cold night, trying to find a place to sleep, trying not to be assaulted, trying not to starve.

Ambroz is 5 at the time. He and his family are homeless. It’s the only life he’s known.

“The Midtown windows glow,” he writes, “each one a framed fantasy.”

“On the fringes of this shiny holiday wonderland, in the dark alcoves and corners of the night, are people like us, passing like ghosts around and through the bright, clean tourists,” he continues. “We drift in circles, making home everywhere and nowhere. We hunker down in the colorless crevices of the city, in the gray shadows of gray buildings where the gray snow is piled; we are gray people fading to nothing.”

“A Place Called Home” is a window into childhood poverty, abuse, homelessness, foster care, mental illness. Ambroz wrote down the darkest, saddest, most violent parts of his life in the hopes of moving us, as a nation, toward change.

His formative years were spent in the shadows. His story, he knew, shouldn’t stay there.

“As a child, if I died and my family died, no one would care,” Ambroz told me. “We were invisible. We were in front of you with our hands out, covered in sores, covered in filth, starving. And you, America, chose not to see us.”

Childhood poverty, he argues, is the central issue of our time. As of 2020, more than 11 million children in the United States — 16% of kids nationwide — were living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And approximately 450,000 kids are in foster care. Half will experience homelessness when they leave foster care, Ambroz writes, and just 5% will secure a higher education degree.

Those statistics are a policy decision, he argues. Ambroz earned a scholarship to Vassar College and went on to earn his law degree from UCLA. His memoir’s afterword is a call to arms — to solve childhood poverty, to reform foster care, to stop looking the other way.

“Think about your own child, your relative, your friend’s child, your future child, yourself,” he writes. “What if you knew that this beautiful child would be placed in foster care? What would you want for that child? That is what we should be giving them now.”

It’s a variation — and a critical one — on philosopher John Rawls’ thought experiment: Design a just society in which you don’t know what your class or social status would be, and structure its systems accordingly.

I was deeply moved by Ambroz’s story, particularly his ability, both in writing and in conversation, to remain hopeful. Optimistic, even. I asked how he manages, after all he endured, after suffering violence at the hands of his own mother, after studying and living the ravages of poverty. How do you trust humans, humanity, to solve the big stuff after all that?

“I should be dead,” he said. “Instead, I’m in my own home, which I own, talking to a reporter. How could I not be optimistic?

“Every day we stare past all of the good in the world and we focus on the aberrations,” he continued. “I don’t stare past the good. And the good is that every day we have air we can breathe, the water comes out of our taps, for the most part, we have a durable government that has sustained itself, we have the most equitable, transparent society we’ve had in human history. We still have so much work to do, and I’m not ignorant of it. But if you want to bring the public along, tell the full story. And the full story is beautiful and complicated and messy.”

And the full story can change us.

“I never thought I would publish my diary that exposes my most vulnerable parts to the world,” he said. “But I realized I had a story that could maybe make people pull back and feel something and do something.

“So many of us walk around treating the condition of childhood in this country as if it’s the laws of physics,” he said. “It’s not. It’s the laws of man. It’s a decision. We get to create and invent the world we want to live in, and then we get to make it happen.”

With voices like Ambroz guiding us.

“We list the reasons why we can’t help in our heads and hearts,” he said. “‘I have kids. I don’t have money. I’m scared.’ That’s fine, but the end of that sentence needs to be a comma, not a period. ‘I can’t do that, but I can do this.’

“Maybe ‘this’ is how you vote,” he said. “Maybe it’s how you talk about kids. Maybe once a year you go to a school board meeting and ask how they’re helping homeless and foster kids. Kids are waiting on us. They need us to finish that thought.”

What a beautiful, urgent invitation.

David Ambroz will discuss “A Place Called Home” on Zoom at 7 p.m. Jan. 31. The Family Action Network event is free and open to the public. More information at familyactionnetwork.net.

Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at heidikstevens@gmail.com, find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens’ Balancing Act Facebook group.

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