In his memoir “A Place Called Home,” David Ambroz doesn’t really write much about a place he could call home. Instead, the focus is on different places he ended up living: shelters, temporary apartments, the foster system, the juvenile facility he was put in just because authorities couldn’t find him a home.
Right away, the reader is walking in his shoes: specifically, his cold, soaked, too-big sneakers, as five-year-old Ambroz slogs through Manhattan snow at Christmastime, trailing his mother and two siblings in their search for shelter for the night. They end up at a men’s shelter. The man who opens the door lets them in reluctantly, warning his mother all four of them must share one cot and she can’t let the kids out of her sight. Ambroz remembers the conversation:
“‘This place isn’t safe for them.’
‘You think I don’t know that already?’”
“A Place Called Home” is a story of struggle against enormous odds and infinite random cruelties. But it is not a story without a sense of hope. In this scene, Ambroz’s mother gestures around the shelter and asks, “Is this what you want?” Even though he’s only five, Ambroz knows what she’s asking, and what his answer is.
“I’m five, but I already know this: I want a roof to sleep under for more than a night or two, with furniture and blankets and toys. I want to protect my older siblings. I want to protect us from Mom, and I want to protect Mom.”
Maybe it’s a spoiler to say that Ambroz has managed to do all those things. After growing up experiencing homelessness and the foster system, a combination that keeps many people poor and struggling all their lives, Ambroz managed to get through college and become a nationally known poverty and child welfare expert and advocate. In fact, he currently works for Amazon as one of the company’s heads of community engagement.
How did he survive and go on to accomplish so much?
Part of Ambroz’s success is due to his mother. In between her frequent descents into mental illness and irrationality, she was a nurse who managed to find work, even though she repeatedly quit her nursing jobs when her illness hit hard. She valued education and was well-spoken and resourceful. She could find them decent places to live before causing her family to leave, whether because she argued with the landlord or decided that aliens were monitoring them.
Some of Ambroz’s success can also be attributed to the occasional charity or thoughtfulness of relative strangers. There’s the week at camp, where everyone is kind and he can eat all he wants, courtesy of a parishioner at a church they’re temporarily attending. The convenience store owner who lets him pick out what kind of sandwich he wants, and then doesn’t charge his mother for it. “There is a message in these kindnesses that tell me there’s the possibility for a better life: You matter. We care. You are worthy.”
Ambroz gives himself a little credit for their interest, noting that people who are predisposed to be kind toward kids are also interested in what they have to say. “When they ask me how I’m doing, I answer cleverly, ‘Well, I’m fine, thank you. I’d love to hear your opinion on the Iran-Contra affair.’” He notes that being smart helps him get more attention and support.
Being smart also serves Ambroz well in school. He loves school. He’s good at it; he makes excellent grades when he gets the chance to go, and, of course, it’s a source of food.
But still, he notes, children in poverty are given kernels of assistance but rarely rescued from their circumstances. He blames part of that on our societal protection of “the sanctity of the family.”
His mother’s bouts with mental illness meant that she actively abused him; at one point, Ambroz recalls her throwing him down a flight of stairs.
He tries to report her for that, blurting out what happened to a counselor at school. But when social workers come to talk to him, they do it with his mother in the room, and he lies, saying no, she didn’t do that.
Eventually, though, Ambroz admits she did, and the social workers take him away. They have no place to put him, so he sleeps the first night in their office, and then he’s taken to a juvenile detention facility.
“Detention facilities criminalize poverty. We remove kids from unsafe situations without hope. Then we put them in a system that further destroys them.”
Point in fact, at the facility, the other boys sensed his homosexuality, even though he didn’t act on it. Ambroz was attacked by the other boys and taunted by the instructors. When he’s released into a foster home, it’s to a couple who use him as free labor and even rent him out to a local contractor. They rarely let him go to school. One day, when he is at school, he faints because his foster parents systematically denied him food.
It still takes him months to get out of that situation, but, when he does, he decides to ask someone else to foster him: “the nicest adult I know.” Holly works at the YMCA, and he had met her a year earlier when he was at a YMCA camp. She had visited him weekly for a year after that.
Ambroz walks the three miles to the YMCA, where he finds Holly.
“So many people, good, decent people who are capable of loving kids who are not their own, never consider fostering. Or if they do, they have lists of reasons they can’t do it — the timing is wrong, or they don’t have space, or they don’t want to disrupt the lives of their biological children.”
Holly and her husband Steve agree to foster him, although they do have biological children at home. The transition isn’t smooth, and life with Holly and Steve isn’t always smooth either, but he emerges from his time with them being admitted to Vassar College. From there, Ambroz went on to law school.
Ambroz can now add to his accomplishments that he’s written a book about depressing topics — a child’s life in poverty, homelessness and the screwed-up foster care system — that is not depressing or overtly didactic. He offers the reader plenty to learn about how the system works — and how it doesn’t — in recounting the life and adventures of one remarkable kid.
According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 407,000 children in foster care as of Sept. 30, 2021. As many of those who work in the field know, foster children often become homeless when they reach their 18th birthday. He pleads with the reader to support the reform of foster care and to work toward decriminalizing poverty and providing wrap-around support.
If those seem like big asks, he has a bigger one: “I want you to foster a child, if you have the means, or to support someone or an organization that fosters.” Ambroz’s biography notes that he is a foster dad.
He does not give a road map or a set of directions. Ambroz urges more middle- and upper-income foster parents with higher education degrees to participate, to give additional power to the push for change.
“Foster care is an inflection point where we can halt the systemic inheritance of poverty and violence. All of our children deserve this chance.”
This review initially ran in Washington Independent Review of Books.
Illustration by Henry Behrens/original drawings by Pixabay users Kittypinkart and Saydung89.
Read more of the Nov. 16-22, 2022 issue.