RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: David Ambroz doesn't remember a time before he became homeless. His earliest memories are of moving from place to place, never sure where he, his brother, his sister and his mom were going to sleep. His new memoir is titled "A Place Called Home." It's a vivid story of David's childhood - of his mother's mental illness and abuse, of hunger and homelessness, of the welfare and foster care systems, and of profound love for his siblings. The book starts with a story of a bitterly cold night in New York City. David is trailing behind his mother and older brother and sister. They're all unprotected from the elements - nowhere to go. David thinks he was about 4 years old in that memory, but he can't be sure.
DAVID AMBROZ: The really interesting thing about time, when you're homeless, is it's unmarked. And so these normal things, like photo albums or school graduations or holidays, just kind of come and go.
MARTIN: How did you meet basic needs?
AMBROZ: You know, it's pretty remarkable how long someone can live without food. My brother, sister and I had a system where we would watch out while we searched through trash cans outside of a pizza restaurant, or we would go to free meals at church or religious institutions. And I remember, when I was in school, if you looked at my grades before lunch - the free lunch - what they would look like versus after lunch, when I actually had calories in my system.
MARTIN: Do you remember when you first became afraid of your mom?
AMBROZ: So right from the start, I tell the story of the night we almost died from exposure. I was around 4, but I thought we might die from just freezing cold. My sister and brother stopped speaking. We couldn't control our bowel movements, and we started having fuzzy thoughts and collapsing. And we sat on top of grates where the subway air pushed out was warm until we could eat. So there's moments of neglect. That certainly was a moment I thought my mom, through her mental illness, might do that - might lead us to death.
MARTIN: So she's working through bouts of paranoia and a proclivity for anger, and she explodes at people. At one point, she does get this job as a live-in aide for an older woman, and this woman lets all of you live with her.
MARTIN: She happens to be Jewish, and your mom gets it in her head that you should be Jewish as well. Can you recount that story?
AMBROZ: Sure. And up until this point, my name was actually Hugh. And my mom decided I was going to be converted, and the way that she would do that is through having me circumcised. And we were homeless, essentially, before this housing, and we would become homeless after. But the problem with the surgery was that it was poorly done, and there was no aftercare. And I became severely infected, which nearly killed me. And the woman we lived with then began to experience Mom and all of her eccentricities and mental illness becoming very clear and evicted us and threw us out onto the streets.
MARTIN: As you write in the book, I mean, you're almost on death's door, and you finally say, it's my mom who's done this.
AMBROZ: Yeah. I mean, I think about the moments in my life where I've had to come out. And I use that word very thoughtfully, but this is one of those moments when I knew that to protect her was to die - that to protect her was that we would die. And I had to take us out of that situation. And so despite efforts in the past, this was the moment of rupture, when I truly, in my heart and mind, became a man - an adult - and I knew that I could not save her - that we had to save ourselves. And that's when we entered that whole world of state custody for good.
MARTIN: Your social worker, therapists - all these people who are intervening in these moments - at that moment seemed to understand your sexual identity before you did, and you suffered a lot because of what was clear was a built-in homophobia into the system. I mean, people are thinking through without saying it - we've got to be very sensitive to where we put you because you're gay, but we're not going to say that out loud.
AMBROZ: Yeah. You know, it's today - even today, there are - double the percentage that we are in the population is represented in foster care. Eighteen to 20% of foster kids are queer. When I went into the system, it was not only not spoken about. It was something you treated, and I went through that. We would...
MARTIN: Something you treated - like conversion therapy.
MARTIN: People thought it was a problem that needed to be fixed.
AMBROZ: Right from my first residential foster home, they diagnosed me as gay. And the foster parents, the therapist and the system went to work to help me be not gay. I think what's even more evil to me is all of us that do nothing. I think the people that I write about deserve condemnation, but all of us should ask ourselves, what are we doing? Because the people I write about should not be foster parents - some of them. However, the more pernicious part is all of the adults that I walked amongst that do nothing - that let these people foster - that let the condition of hundreds of thousands of children every single day experience that. They were horrendous. They were horrendous people. They had no capacity to do the task that they were asked to do. But we're underfunding the system, not enough people are stepping up to foster, and what do we expect to have happen?
MARTIN: Did you ever think about changing your name back to Hugh, especially considering how the name David was bestowed to you in that kind of violent way?
AMBROZ: Yeah. You know, I - if - as you have the book, there's a dedication section, and then there's the acknowledgements. There's - one of the people listed in the acknowledgments is H.J.D.A., Hugh John David Ambroz.
MARTIN: Oh, I missed that.
AMBROZ: And I listed the acronym because I do think about that boy. I think about who he would have been if he was in a different world. And I don't warn him because I love who I am and who I've become. I love David Ambroz, not as a name, but who - I've made that mean something. That means something, and it means something because of the life that I lead and the work that I've done and will do.
MARTIN: The book is called "A Place Called Home." We've been talking with David Ambroz. David, thank you so much.
AMBROZ: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
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