I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is David Ambroz.
As a child, David grew up homeless on the East Coast with a mother who battled mental illness. He has written a gripping book, A Place Called Home: A Memoir. In it, David shares his personal story that went from deprivation to thriving.
It is a powerful and disturbing story of what it’s like to be homeless.
Today, he is the Head of External Affairs and Community Engagement for the West and Inland Empire for Amazon. Before working for Amazon, he was President and Chief Executive Office of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and the Executive Director for Corporate Social Responsibility at Walt Disney Television.
Some of his notable non-profit work includes serving as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, and member of the California Child Welfare Council.
President Obama recognized David as an American Champion of Change. He is an expert on diversity, inclusion, poverty, and child welfare. As a foster parent, he also started a nonprofit called Foster More to help people better understand foster care and provide opportunities to help our youth.
David graduated from Vassar College with his degree in Political Science and then later graduated from UCLA School of Law.
Please enjoy this remarkable episode with David Ambroz: Behind the Headlines—One Person’s Battle with Homelessness!
If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!
Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with David Ambroz: Behind the Headlines—One Person’s Battle with Homelessness:
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People. We are on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is David Ambroz.
David grew up homeless on the East Coast with a mother who was battling mental illness. He has written a gripping book, A Place Called Home: A Memoir.
In it, David shares his personal story that went from deprivation to thriving. It is a very powerful and even disturbing inside story of what it's like to be a homeless person.
Today he's the head of external affairs and community engagement for the West and Inland Empire for Amazon.
Prior to working for Amazon, he was the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and the Executive Director for Corporate Social Responsibility at Walt Disney Television.
Some of his notable nonprofit work includes serving as the executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation and the president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, as well as a member of the California Child Welfare Council.
David was recognized by President Obama as an American champion of change. He's an expert on diversity, inclusion, poverty and child welfare. As a foster parent himself, he's also started a nonprofit to help people better understand foster care and to provide more opportunities for our youth.
David graduated from Vassar College with a degree in political science and later graduated from the UCLA School of Law.
I'm Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People. And now here's the remarkable David Ambroz. One of the most powerful parts of your book was the section where your mom decided that you should convert to Judaism. Can you explain what happened and then why did you keep the name David?
It's a very painful story in every sense of that word. I was born Hugh John, David Ambroz. Neither David nor Ambroz are really my name. And when I was about seven or eight, my mom decided to convert me to Judaism in order that I'd be more successful. That was in her mind the way to do it. We had been homeless for almost my entire childhood.
There was no before time when we weren't. There was no memory of going to school or consistent adults or stuff that we had or toys. It was constant moving. It was constant instability. When she made this decision, I didn't really understand it. I didn't understand what it meant to be circumcised or even to be Jewish for that matter.
Religion was mostly where we got food. It was churches and other institutions that gave out free meals. So my mom took me to get circumcised and it was an incredibly violating experience.
It was not just the pain of the actual operation. It was I didn't understand why people were touching me. I didn't understand the very place my mom told me never to let anyone touch me. Everyone seemed to come in and do and then to have the pain associated with it and then to have an infection that nearly killed me. It was layers upon layers of violation.
And before then I was Hugh. It was my name, it was my identity. And I became David. And it was important for two reasons. One, there was the before time and after time and whatever innocence I had left after the life that I had lived up until seven or eight, it was over. There's such a violent experience that occurred and I kept David secondarily because over the years of my life, David Ambroz, I hope has come to mean something more than a name.
It's come to mean an advocate. It's come to mean someone who is working to fight poverty and help foster kids and change systems. I don't change it because it's an identity that I have kept and made mean something.
And I also don't give power to anyone over my name. I am no longer rechristianable. I am David Ambroz, regardless of how I got the name, that is who I am and when I finish this life, hopefully it'll be a name that means something to folks as it relates to the work that I've done and I'm doing associated with this book.
I think that many people listening to this have superficial knowledge of what it's like to be homeless. So could you explain the reality of homelessness as you experienced it?
Over my life I've had to come out and not just about being gay, for being formally homeless. There is such a shame associated with it. We think of homelessness and we have this certain image in our head. We forget that homeless people are people. We talk about cleaning it up. And the book opens up when I'm about four and living at Grand Central, they came through and cleaned it up, forcing my family out onto the street that night, almost killing us from exposure.
Homeless people are people. We have biological functions. We exist between our knees and our neck and that has a lot of requirements. I had to learn how to bathe in public restrooms. I had to help make tampons for my mom out a paper towel and toilet paper in public restrooms. I had to learn to steal as a child to find food.
Homelessness is a constant crisis. It's a constant state of waiting for something to happen, usually bad. So this equilibrium is punctuated by incredible acts of violence or deprivation, and it's constantly being in that trigger state, being that way for twelve years, my health was horrendous when I entered foster care. I had massive amounts of problems with my teeth.
I was underweight and malnourished. There was so many issues that related to my just being a person, nevermind my mental health. My mom suffered mental health issues, suffers mental health issues, and so many homeless people do, and yet we turn away. I don't expect every individual to lift every other person up on an individual basis, but that's what we do today, is we look at these people, we walk by and we think I can't because, and instead we should think I can't because and I'm going to do X instead.
And the X instead is going to be whatever it is right for you. And maybe it's just learning more. A lot of folks, for instance in Los Angeles rail against the homelessness crisis we have here and then they talk about the mayor. The mayor doesn't have the power or the authority over this issue. It's the county supervisors. Why does that matter?
It matters because homeless people don't vote. And if we're throwing out solutions based on a problem that we don't understand, we can't hold these policy makers accountable. So if you can't individually lift that person up, what can you do? You can educate yourself. You could find out a little bit more. You could donate your time, your money. Can you commit to one hour a year going to the board meeting that deals with homelessness in your jurisdiction and your city and your town?
Yes, all of us can. And we can't keep going with this learned helplessness. People throw their hands at them like I don't understand. And yet when I listen to people talk about sports, the statistics they have in their head is amazing or they figure out TikTok or these mobile devices that are so complicated and yet we can't use Google.
We need to move from a place of I can't because to I will do X and I believe we can do that and I think the homeless crisis deserves that. Kids deserve that. There's 8.4 million kids living in abject poverty like I was. But you know what's interesting about that?
That's half the amount in my lifetime than when I started. We've halved the number of kids living in poverty. We're doing it folks, but we need more and we need people to stop stopping and I can't because.
What would you say that homeless people need the most?
I think an empathetic public is not enough. Shaking your head in sorrow is not enough. The largest percentage of homeless aren't necessarily the folks that are in your face. One of the largest groups of homeless are former foster kids between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. We're emancipated kids to the street. Kids that are leaving foster care and becoming homeless. Are we okay with that?
More than half will experience homelessness within years of living in the system. More than half. You're more likely to die than go to college coming out of foster care. You are more likely to become homeless than go to college coming out of foster care.
We need to think about homelessness not as a blob or as a monolithic thing. There are subsets of the population that need and deserve our attention and more than empathy, they need action. If more than a third of these people are children coming out of the system, why don't we turn the tap off?
Why don't we emancipate them to community college? Let's build the dorm. Let's build twenty dorms across the country. We would end foster youth homelessness. One of the next biggest groups are people that miss a paycheck or have a crisis of some sort that leads them to be evicted. They need rapid rehousing.
These two groups are not addicted, they're not chronic, they're not mentally ill necessarily, and they're together combined somewhere around 30 percent to 50 percent of the population. Instead of this monolithic image in our heads, we need to tease out that it's more complicated and beautiful and solvable, therefore.
What if instead of those rapid rehousing people becoming homeless because they missed a paycheck, what if we help them? What if we get them to stabilize the rent check that month? What if we make it super simple? What if we build dorms for foster kids and not dump them on the street at eighteen?
We could chip away. And what's left are the harder to serve cases of homelessness? What do we need for those folks? We need to embrace the fact that humans are messy. Humans are messy, humans are messy. All of us are big piles of contradictions and layer on top of that decrease cognitive function.
We need to embrace that messiness and embrace our brothers and sisters on the street, not walk by them as they shrivel and devolve. My mom when I was in college, I found her to be homeless again and I have worked for twenty plus years of my life to get her to the services she needs to be a human, not a pitiful thing on the street. I don't know that she would be alive today if she didn't have a son and a brother and a sister of mine fighting for her.
Every homeless person deserves that. What they need is not our empathy. They need our action. They need us to educate ourselves and hold people in power accountable and not just throw our hands up and get frustrated and arrest our way out of this problem. It's not going to work and we're doing it.
When you read in the newspaper that the police or whatever broke up a homeless camp and now that place is controlled or locked off or whatever, okay. But then what happened to the people who were living there? What happens to those people?
Super important question. And as you're read in the book, that's how my family, that's how the story starts, is we're being pushed out of a location. We're being pushed out of Grand Central to clean it up. And we almost died from exposure that night.
What happens to them is vital, but there's two things that we need to do. First, we need to turn the tap off. Why are people becoming homeless? We need to address those issues. I mentioned some of them already. We can do that. It's doable, it's achievable. And then we look at folks that are chronic that need different levels of services that are the folks that are going to be most impacted by being moved around. We're dealing with mental health issues, we're dealing with substance abuse issues, et cetera.
Those are going to need wraparound services. I've always thought about programs that address homelessness and poverty as almost as if you're drowning off the side of a lifeboat, you're the individual and you're underwater, you're trying to get a breath and someone reaches out of the lifeboat and pulls you out of the water for a second and you breathe, you go, “Ah”, and you suck in the air and you are very grateful for that oxygen.
And then it drops you back in the water and says, don't worry, there's another program coming. And two minutes later someone else pulls you out of the water and you breathe and again you're so grateful. What if we pulled the person out of the damn water? We have to do things differently and we are. In California starting January. We have something called California CARE Courts.
We are decriminalizing mental health and homelessness. The largest provider of mental health care in Los Angeles County are the county sheriffs, the county sheriff.
Are we okay with that? We have tried to arrest our way since we deinstitutionalized mental health since President Reagan ended the welfare safety net we had around this issue and we went along with it. We have criminalized poverty and homelessness and mental health.
And starting January, Governor Newsom and the legislature passed something called CARE Court, which is going to allow the court system to require people to get the treatment they need. And if they don't, they can be forced to. Instead of putting them in jail, we're going to get them the treatment they need.
We have to keep on that pathway. We need to take that system nationwide. People like what can I do? Find out if you guys are adopting that. Ask why not? Organize to make it happen.
We should monitor it. We should make more people treated with respect and dignity. But my mom, when I got her off the street, was not in a mental place to exercise her full civil rights and yet the country wanted her to enjoy them and at the same time be homeless. And I knew that she could not survive the streets. She would not survive. So what can we do? We can acknowledge the problem, we could find out what's going on in our community and we can look at things that are already working like CARE Court and do more of that.
On a very tactical level, and this is a question I face quite often. I'm out and about and I see a homeless person in front of a Starbucks or a market or whatever and they're asking for money. And David, honestly, I don't know what to do.
I have money. I can give them money, but then I'm thinking, am I giving them money so they can buy drugs or am I fostering worse behavior by doing that? So what I do is I buy them food and I give them food, but really I don't know what to do. What should a person do when they see a homeless person asking for money or asking for anything?
Such an important question. First and foremost, your feeling is the fertile soil we need to plant real solutions in. That is why I believe the default position of Americans, we're good people, we care. And that is something to first just understand, because if you're going to play the game you need to understand the rules and the number one rule is we are good people, and that is going to allow us to actually solve this problem.
I don't walk by homeless children. If they ask me for something, I give. Everyone else case by case. Because I also recognize that if I choose to or not, I know the real answer is not. The real answer is take that time, energy, money and give it to programs that are comprehensively approaching it. So for instance, in Los Angeles or New York, there's a program here in LA called PATH, People Assisting the Homeless.
Instead of giving twenty dollars to that individual, give it that day, go online and give it to, PATH is going to do wraparound support services. That's how we're going to fix the solution. That's how Chrysalis, which helps people that are mentally ill or addicted find jobs out of homelessness. I'm not saying don't give it in that moment because I would not be alive today if folks hadn't decided to give me money that day as a child begging.
But the real answer folks, is to spend a minute when you feel that way and go find the right nonprofit partner and go ask questions. Your school system, I don't know where you are today, but wherever you live, how do they help homeless children? Do they have a free pantry for food? If more than half the kids in the school are on free lunch, that means their parents are not getting calories.
What are we doing to help those parents to make sure they don't devolve into homelessness? How can we help? Give the money if you feel inspired to be safe, go find a nonprofit and support data if not, or in addition and then take the time. It's interesting to me that we have this learned helplessness. I can't because. Use Google. Who deals with homelessness in Pacoima?
Google, search, call them, find out what you can do. Log into one meeting a year of your local body that deals with homelessness. One meeting a year. We can do this folks, but the people that are in charge need to know that it's important to us not just to get out of our face but to fix. And that is going to be take a higher level of civic engagement than we've had to date.
Voting once in a while or giving five dollars once in a while is not going to make this better. It's not going to solve this issue. Please feel free to give, but give to the nonprofit and support policies and realize that you're responsible and take that responsibility and do the bare minimum that you can do plus some.
We both live in California. If you were rating Gavin Newsom, how would you rate what he's trying to do?
A plus. First of all, he talks about it all the time. Here is one of the most powerful people in the world talking about poverty and homelessness and foster care all the time, and it's many reasons, but one of which is that's the responsibility of government, is to lift up those amongst us and take care of our safety.
I don't know of an issue other than perhaps COVID that gets more attention than maybe climate change, but neck and neck, that is first and foremost important. He is setting the tone, the debate and the agenda in this state and he is talking about homelessness and poverty. Amazing. When there was a surplus, he sent money out to help poor people with it.
Poverty with this legislature and this governor is central to the conversation. That's amazing. And not necessarily what it had to be, so very good.
But the most important thing to me and the most amazing innovation has been his advocacy for CARE Court, which I've talked about. But CARE Court, much like his position on gay marriage all those years ago, I believe is a leader position.
We are creating a parallel path for people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues, to not criminalize them and cycle them in and out of jail and the streets, but to permanently get them the help they need. He has pushed that. He is the one taking the political risk. It came out of the legislature's, a lot of great people involved in that. There's a lot of controversy around that, but he is not afraid to make that decision and carry that policy forward. That is one of the most important policy changes that our state can make to arrest this crisis.
Wow. I know him. I'm going to ensure that he hears what you just said. Okay?
Oh my gosh. Tell him, the other thing is I want him to build dorms at community colleges. With five dorms, we could end foster care, homelessness. There are a third of the homeless in the state. We own the land. You don't have to build parking. We have a vocational crisis. There are enough lawyers in California who can find a damn plumber.
Let us help every child reach your full potential. Not everyone's going to go to college. Why don't we build dorms at community colleges? We could be the state that leads, it's a permanent fix to the systems that are dumping eighteen-year olds with not enough money to rent onto the street with no skills. It's like we have a car factory and we keep putting a car out onto the street with no engine and then we're shocked when it doesn't go anywhere.
We own the engine factory. It's called community college. Why don't we connect the car and the engine factory together and we can arrest intergenerational poverty and homelessness. We so can do it. And I remember when he gave his state of the state his first year, he talked about bring me ideas that are system fixes and I think CARE Court is a system fix. I think pulling a third of the homeless off the street forever is a systems fix. So if you're good friends with that wonderful man, please carry that idea to him.
I absolutely will. I absolutely will. Okay, so you made a point in the PR kit that came with the book, that the intent of your book is not to be this inspirational memoir that people say if he can do it, I can do it. I'm going to follow his plan. Rather you say that people should create a personal plan. So how does one create a personal plan to get out of homelessness?
I think what I was really driving at is we collectively, a lot of times people say exactly what you identified. “Well if he did it, why can't everyone?” No one should have to run the gauntlet that I ran to get here today to talk to you. No one. I barely, barely survived. I barely survived. The violence of all types done to me, no human should have to endure. No child should be homeless, no child.
Today there are 118,000 homeless children in New York City. That's in New York Times less than a month ago, 118,000 folks. What got me here today should not be what children have to go through to reach their full potential.
So what should we do? We should create programs and systems that embrace the messy condition of humans and lift us up out of poverty. My mom, in order to access rent benefits had to have an address where she could get mail.
She couldn't get an address until she got the rental assistance. You had to fill out paperwork to get food stamps. My mom is mentally ill, she's not going to fill out paperwork. Why are you having her fill out a book? The other department asked her to fill out the same thing.
Has anyone filled out like an application for something and you sign and date it fifty times and you're like, why am I doing this? Layer on that abject poverty and a constant state of crisis and stress and we're asking people to do ridiculously impossible things for them. So what should we do? We should embrace the full messiness of the human condition.
What got me here should not be applied to other people. The cruelty of that is beyond us. I think we should realize that in order to have healthy families and communities, we have to have healthy environments.
Two-thirds of the kids entering foster care today, two-thirds are there because of neglect. Neglect is a euphemism for poverty. Most of these kids, not all, some of them is there for other reasons like their parents are on drugs or what have you, but so many of them don't need to be in the system. What if we remove that?
What if we wrapped our arms around that family and gave them the services they need? Instead we persecute, we condemn, we create systems that it's impossible to access benefits and then we have shame for people who don't make it and end up homeless. My individual plan that I ask people to do is first and foremost, for a country that sent a person to the moon, we should not be proud of filling potholes. We need to moonshot this. I keep hearing moonshots about cancer, which I love. I hope we do it.
Where is the moonshot for poverty? We need to stop it. And by the way, we're doing it. 8.4 million kids live in poverty today in the United States. That is half, more than half of what it was when I was young. We've halved it in my lifetime. What if we kept doing that?
So the other part that I would just say to folks is we have to stop denigrating government. We are the government. We are the government. I'm here today because of imperfect government. I'm grateful for the foster homes I had all of them. I'm grateful for the free food given out to me even though it was disgusting. I am grateful that people pay taxes to lift people like me up so I can give back.
We need to do more of that and stop at this learned helplessness and civic illiteracy and disbelief and denigration of people in public service. It's getting us nowhere.
Do you think the fundamental reason for a lot of these red tape and regulation and getting your mom to have to jump to these hoops is because people think, these people are fundamentally lazy, so why should my tax dollars go to pay these freeloaders? And it is kind of a mindset. You think they chose homelessness voluntarily?
It's really an important point, and I would say I think belief that folks would ever optionally choose to be homeless is if it exists at all, it's a small minority. We have to decide what kind of world and system we want to live in and then we can create that together. The systems that have come about to prevent taking advantage of poverty, unfortunately are perhaps overdoing it.
The incentive in the story that I tell about the time my mom went to get benefits, the woman that was deciding whether or not we got assistance, what were her incentives that day? Her incentives weren't necessarily to lift up my family. Her incentives were to apply this checklist. “Are you looking for work, Mary?” My mom had three children and she was homeless. When was she going to be looking for work? How was she going to be looking for work? And yet you have to.
I think the system should prevent fraud. It's not what I'm saying. We should just make it a drive-through window. But are we really creating systems or are we creating systems based on the myth of the welfare queen, for instance? Let's make rules based on reality, not the exceptions. If you make rules based on the exceptions, they're going to be overly broad and not helpful.
Give you, for instance, my sister's a social worker and I asked her once, I said, What do you do?” And you know what she said to me? She said, “David, I do paperwork.” Here's a woman highly trained in therapeutic social work, with decade plus of experience, and she feels like the most of what she does is paperwork for the different agencies she has to inform.
What if we gave her an iPad instead of having her fill out five times the condition of the apartment, she took a picture and it went into all the databases that needed to know the condition of the apartment.
What if the department of probation, the public education system and the Department of public health, what if all their databases talked so my sister could go get information about the kid that she needed to do her job? We can create systems that decrease friction.
She does paperwork because they keep suing the system every time there's a child that dies in the system or gets hurt. Of course we should look at that and fix that problem. But that's not what we do. We overreact, we layer on more paperwork and more processes until my sister is calcified and can't do the amazing job she knows how to do.
I think we need to be mindful of fraud, but if we're designing all our rules, we're forgetting the core mission of the program in the first place, which is this addressing the need of these people. Is it arresting poverty? Is it stopping that?
The answer is no. We can do better. We can be more efficient. And by the way, we need to embrace the human condition, which is messy. My mom was a messy case. There's no one thing that's going to fix Mary Ambroz's problems, but that's okay. We sent a person to the moon, we could figure this out.
This is a perhaps naive and maybe existential question, but do you ever wonder why there are people like Gabriela in Spain and then there are people who mistreated you? How do you wrap your mind around the fact that there are still Gabriela's and yet you've encountered so many people who are the opposite of her?
How do I reconcile that? I'll say it's kind of what I said a moment ago. Two things. One, I have seen the best and worst of humanity. And the worst of humanity is not the folks that did the violence to me, it's the folks that ignore it.
It's the vast majority of us that walk by and are okay with the fact that there's 118,000 homeless children in New York City today, that there are 8.4 million children living in abject poverty in the United States of America. If all of our schools are Title one schools, which mean the kids get free lunch, what are their parents eating?
Our indifference and our prioritization and our political systems to debate all of these controversial topics endlessly and not talk about this issue is on us folks. It's on us. We are the people making the rules of the game that other actors follow.
Not since 1999 have we said child poverty at a presidential debate, 1999. We've said coal miners and they're important to talk about, but there's a couple thousand of them. Why are we not talking about child poverty? Why are we not talking about the condition of schools or poverty since Robert Kennedy ran for office? Why are we not having this conversation in this country?
I've seen the worst of humanity and it is the indifference of folks, not the violence. The violence is inexplicable. It is inhumane and it should be condemned and prosecuted. Very clear. But the more pernicious thing is when we are not doing enough to address this issue as a people, we can do it.
We know. It's what you said a moment ago about your desire to hand money out to that person asking. That is our default position as a people. I can't speak for other cultures, but that's what I believe about America.
Every time I was in my darkest moment, I had what I call an occasional angel. It was the teacher who slipped me a granola bar, because she knew I would not eat anything between that lunch and the next lunch. She knew. Might she has done X, might she has done Y. Absolutely.
Or the school nurse when she washed the lice out of my hair. She saw the bruises. You can't miss them. But she touched me compassionately. She spoke to me and it was one of the first times I ever remember being touched, not in violence or perversion…that mattered.
So you're giving money occasionally is beautiful, but we have to ask ourselves, what could we do collectively and what are the systems we have to do that work? And we need to invest in them. We have to have this learned helplessness. Go the heck away.
I don't know what percentage of Angelinos that could have voted people from Los Angeles, but it wasn't even half. What is that? We all rant against these issues, but what is that? We have to take control and do the work that we know we need to do. I've seen the best and worst of humanity and I believe in us. I still believe in us. I've never not believed.
Going on to another subject that I bet people have no clue about, including myself is the foster care system. Can you describe your experiences in foster care? Because it is a black box to me.
Really briefly and very simply, foster care is a temporary placement while a child's biological family or legal caregivers get their act together, whatever that problem is, and then we're supposed to reunite the child with that family. Foster care is supposed to be temporary.
That is what is designed for. Foster care is not an adoption system. Foster care is a temporary placement for children who need temporary care while whatever's sorted out needs sorting out under the supervision of the government, be it the courts or what have you. So foster care, every year about 700,000 kids pass through foster care.
At any one time there's about 425,000 American children in foster care. They're disproportionately kids of color and poverty. We've criminalized poverty.
The federal government reimburses the states for almost all of their foster care expenditures. Foster care has been extended to twenty-one, but states have to opt in. And I'm sure your listeners can guess which states opted in and which haven't. And the federal government pays for that.
When you emancipate from foster care, which is what it's called when you emancipate, more foster kids are falling into homelessness, jail and death individually than going to any type of higher education. It is a system that is seamlessly helping perpetuate violence and poverty. It is a system that has been around for a very long time. And here let me say something that seems contradictory, but it's not.
We have the best foster care system in our country's history right now, right this minute. It's the most transparent. It's wrestling with inequity, it's wrestling with issues with regards to queer kids in foster care.
Over 30 percent of kids in foster care identify as queer, LGBTQ+, over 30 percent. That's almost triple their population in general population. Why is that? We have a system of essentially people volunteering to open up their homes for these kids. What I recommend in my afterward of my book is a way that we can make the whole system better.
And just give you one example, we need more people to foster. There's not enough foster homes, which means people like my sister who are trying to find a placement for a foster kid are almost like a Tinder. They're like desperately swiping, trying to find someone who has enough space and there's rarely space for sibling groups. So she spends all of her time trying to find a placement for this kid instead of doing the work she knows she needs to do. We need more foster parents.
Why don't people foster? That's a couple reasons. A large part of the reason is economic. A lot of middle class people would do it except they worry about pension or retirement. They worry about sending their kids to college, they worry about healthcare. What if we made them federal employees? We don't need a ton. We need thousands, not millions.
What if we made them federal employees like postal workers or veterans? What if they got healthcare after a number of years for life? What if they got pension through the federal pension system? What if their kids went to college for free after ten years of good service? All of a sudden the three significant economic issues facing in the middle class would not be erased but would be addressed. And folks that might step up would step up.
We need thousands, not millions, and that is something that we can do. Relieving the pressure on the number of foster homes would have all sorts of other ancillary benefits. So foster care is a system of our own creation. It's working and it's doing a good job. It could do a better job. And we have had major progress in the last couple years.
Another example, sorry, but just important example. Under President Trump in partnership with folks like now mayor Karen Bass, when she was in Congress, they passed a law and the law was the most important bill to address foster care in a generation. And it basically says that the federal government money, which pays for most of foster care can be used to preserve the family. It used to be you only got reimbursed if you took the kid away.
So what did states do? They took the kid away.
Now the funding can be used to provide services and support to the family to keep the kid in the home. That's awesome. It's still rolling out, it's brand new law. So foster care is a beautiful system. People have decided to break up families permanently or temporarily for the best interest of the child. We just need to make it work harder and better.
You tell a very disturbing story when you were in Albany about the two cops who beat up your mother. And so if the LAPD or NYPD or SFPD, if they were to ask you, David, how should we deal with homeless people? Obviously not beat them up. What's your advice to the police?
First and foremost, I think it goes to what I've talked about throughout my advocacy, which is we've asked institutions that are designed to do X, to do everything, but X. Police are not mental healthcare providers. Police are not crisis workers, police are not drug addiction counselors.
So before we get to the, what we should ask cops to do is, we should ask ourselves if we are creating a police force who is designed to do X with the use of persuasion and violence, is that the right body that should be addressing homelessness? And the answer is yes and no. Sometimes police are absolutely necessary.
And in that instance what I would ask is what we're starting to do, which is programs like community policing where police officers are not randomly shuffled around the entire city or jurisdiction. They get to know an area.
Homeless people, my family included, we went to the usual spots. And so community policing is an amazing program where folks get to know the community that they're policing that is super important to develop empathy. And one thing I hope, I would ask police officers to keep, and I believe they do, is empathy towards the people they serve.
Homeless people are also people. They're constituents, they're citizens and they are also there and they deserve to be served equally to those that are housed. Empathy's vital. As frustrating as it is, as toxic as it can be, you have to have that empathy to do that kind of work. I think the reason I shared that story in the book was to talk a little bit about poverty and the condition of what it felt like to be in an overly policed community and the exigencies of what can occur when you do something like that for a whole people, which is my family.
I think police are doing the job plus what they were not designed to do. And I think we're starting to ask that question. I know in LA we're sending out more EAMS to deal with homelessness before we call the cops, we're talking about creating different kinds of bodies that would deal with that. But first and foremost I hope police will keep that empathy and get to know these folks.
If you're still working the same beat, if you're getting to know a community and then you run into these folks, you see them as humans. And in the last memorial debate in this country all across the country, I keep hearing things like “Clean it up”, good people saying phrases like that. And the ‘it’ are me, people like me, it doesn't describe humans and police will reflect our values as a country.
We have to stop thinking of homeless people as its or it's problems to solve. They're people. And it doesn't mean I like the tent in front of my house. It doesn't mean I like seeing someone use drugs on the street. But I also recognize that's the vast minority of people that are experiencing homelessness. And if we amalgamate them into one big blob and try and solve that problem, that's not going to work. So we have to educate ourselves.
We have to practice empathy, we have to create policies as people and then the police will follow those and reflect our values. But on the frontline, I'd ask just those police to maintain and keep up their empathy.
I would love to hear how Jessica and Alex are doing now.
My mom has three children with graduate degrees, with healthy, thriving families. Jessica went on to get her master's and she is now an LCSW practicing here in Los Angeles, licensed clinical social worker. My brother went from the army onto Duke for his MBA and is working in banking. Him and his family have recently relocated to Dublin for a wonderful position there.
Both are parents, both have thriving healthy relationships. And today I actually am one of my mom's caregivers. So we work together. But for the siblings, I work with other folks, but one of my mom's caregivers, she's doing well too. She's doing the best she's going to be doing.
I have to say that three of you, your brother and sister and you, based on your early life, it is astounding to me that you have college and graduate degrees and have become what they have become. So do you have any insights on how did you not only survive but then turn it on to people who are thriving? I don't understand how that had happened.
I created a lot with my mom. Despite everything, my mom gave us a value of education. We weren't in school very much, but my mom consistently shared verbally the importance of school. And she also taught us to read. And she also constantly told us that we would be going to college. She constantly told us that. She told me all the time, “You are going to be a Supreme Court judge.”
And ironically she'd be very upset when we didn't get As, we weren't often in school. But that orientation deeply embedded itself. And when we went into foster care, it was crystal clear to us that the only way out of this cycle was school. And also in school. It's a place where we were not abused. It was a place where we were fed. It was a place where you could escape the insanity of all around you in what you were learning and the stories.
And I thrived there. And the teachers and the folks that spent just a few more minutes with me, meant the world to me, to have carrying adults was everything. At school, I'm always struck by, if you looked at my grades before the free lunch and then after, you would see a remarkable difference, because there was no food. And so schools in our country have become everything.
They're the community center, they're the healthcare provider, they're afterschool care, they're parent engagement, they're community closets. And yet we just denigrate the heck out of them. Schools are everything for me. And that never ended. I believed the way that I would escape poverty was through my education and my brother and sister were bookends for me. They kept this book upright, they kept us moving forward and we did that for each other.
But it started with my mother. Her constant expectation and demand that we achieve even in these circumstances was always there. And I credit public institutions. I tell the story in the book about going to story time and how important and what a difference that made in my life. Going to read with these librarians, opening up the world to me.
We love your dog's appearance. What's your dog's name?
Buddy is an amazing little dog. They say he's a failed foster. So I got Buddy and I was supposed to just foster him fourteen years ago, but here he is.
I have to say the story of Snickers was very moving too in your book.
Snickers became this talisman in my young life where I was able to pour all the love I had into this creature and it was completely dependent on me and it loved me back unconditionally. And Snickers died because I couldn't care for it.
And it was very reminiscent of what I was experiencing, which is I wasn't sure I was going to make it. And the way that my mom handled it was brutal. But in her mind I think she was trying to teach me to be tough. She just basically was like, get over it. She threw it in the trash and it was my cat, it was Snickers and I had killed it through my inability. And it was really hard, but it was also very much what I was experiencing myself as the story teller.
David, believe it or not, this interview is very challenging for me because it's just contrary to all my upbringing that I have to go after places where you've been wounded, right? Bringing up the death of your cat and talking about your mom and the cops beating up your mom.
You don't wake up in the morning saying, God, if only I could ask somebody that his cat died, that would be such a uplifting experience. I have such-
That's why I put it out there.
... respect for what you've gone through and where you are today. Wow.
That's exactly why I told the story. It's exactly why I am sharing these vulnerable parts of things that we don't usually talk about, is I want people to talk about this stuff. I want us to shine a light on all of these topics. I don't think people really in their day-to-day life spend the energy and time that we might thinking about other people other than in the abstract.
I think we have so much on our list to do. We're so consumed. But these issues perpetuate and I think the only way we can change anything as storytelling, we inspire each other and we have to share these stories. And the other thing I learned very early on in writing was good advice I got was write as if no one was ever going to read it.
I hope at least this hour that people understand the issues that homeless people face and how they are humans and they're not just these people to get rid of from sight, which is honestly like a lot of people think that way, right?
Big picture as you look back, what's the major lesson of your life?
It's a lesson that has increasingly become clear to me. I believe, and I said this a few times, I believe in our collective goodness. I believe in our ability to work together to do big things. And my lesson in my life is I'm here today because of imperfect efforts like that. Imperfect social welfare, safety nets, imperfect schools, imperfect social services, imperfect parenting.
We don't need perfect, but we need to believe in each other and we need to believe in our ability to help each other. And that has been my biggest takeaway and I hope we can reignite and find that faith in each other and also as a country that we can do these things together. I always and am very active in consuming information about what's going on.
But what I often fail to hear are solutions, what I hear are, “here's the problem, here's the problem from this angle, here's the problem from that angle, here's this other problem from this angle.” What I also wanted to point out in the book is the solutions that I think could help address this.
And the reason is not because I think I have the market cornered on answers, but if I'm going to say that I believe in our ability, then I have to contribute to that dialogue. And my other key takeaway is we should listen to people with these lived experiences to help shape the policy to make them the most effective they can be.
And I have been privileged to do that since I was a child working on foster care reform. So the policy prescription at the back of the book and throughout the book when I talk about things, hopefully in a way that's still heartfelt, entertaining, and interesting, it's a love letter to the public and hopefully a policymaker to put some of these ideas into practice.
Because at the end of the day, foster care is this unique moment when we have the chance to stop the intergenerational transfer of poverty and they're our kids. So that fundamental belief, to me is the full circle where we can end that poverty inheritance.
Wow. If people listening want to help with a donation, can you pick out one particular entity that we should donate to?
Absolutely. I'm going to give you three quick answers. First and foremost, I created something called the National Scholarship Fund for Foster youth. 100 percent of the money goes to other nonprofits that give out scholarships to foster kids. It's available on my website or directly to fostermore.org. Just like breast cancer, when you think of breast cancer, you think of cure. And so as you comment, I want you to think of higher education, vocational training, when you think of the word foster kid.
Second CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocate. CASA is an awesome way to be super involved, like a big brother, big sister's way for kids experiencing foster care. There are CASAs almost everywhere. Look up your city or your town and go CASA, Washington. Amazing organization.
The third way is finding out who in your area is doing the best work. And this requires a little detective work on your part, but I know you can do it. It's called Google. We can do it folks, Google it, talk to a few people, find out who's doing the best work where you live and support them. But I think those are three ways you can get involved, small, medium, and large, I like to say.
That's a wrap for today's episode. I hope that you found our conversation enlightening, if not absolutely eye-opening. David is a true inspiration and advocate for social change. From his difficult upbringing on the streets to his current role at Amazon, David's journey is a testament to the power of perseverance and determination.
As a champion of change, David has dedicated his life to advocating for diversity, inclusion, and child welfare.
Until next time, thank you for listening. Thank you also to the Remarkable People team, Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, Luis Magana, Alexis Nishimura, and the drop-in Queen of Santa Cruz, Madisun Nuismer.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. Mahalo and aloha.
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