The question, as she stood in front of a roomful of angry neighbors complaining about her youth homeless shelter, made Andrea Urton’s blood boil.
What happens to these shelter kids, anyway? a woman asked. Do they amount to anything?
“I got really angry and I said very calmly, ‘Well, some of them grow up to be CEOs of homelessness nonprofits. That’s what happens to these kids,'” Urton said. “And the room fell silent.”
Urton should know. It’s exactly what happened to her.
Today, Urton runs the nonprofit HomeFirst Services, making her responsible for Santa Clara County’s largest homeless shelter and a network of other programs that support more than 6,000 unhoused people a year. She’s been instrumental in the county and city of San Jose’s efforts to shelter people during the pandemic using new, safer models, which other cities now may duplicate.
But as a teenager abandoned by her abusive, alcoholic father, she was homeless off and on for about four years. After decades of feeling guarded and ashamed of her past, she decided to tell this news organization details of her story, hoping it will help dispel stereotypical views of unhoused people as mentally ill, addicted and dirty.
“When people see me, I look like their aunt, their sister, their mother,” 53-year-old Urton said, while sitting in her San Jose backyard with her dog Lulu. “I could be any one of them or anyone in their circle. So if that woman could be homeless, then holy cow, maybe it really could happen to anyone. And that’s what I want the message to be.”
Urton grew up poor outside of Los Angeles, with an older sister, a hard-drinking father and a chronically ill mother who died when Urton was 9.
Her father was a charming man who played bongo drums and guitar, but he could also be terrifying, Urton said. She remembers him spanking her so hard he broke his wooden paddle; shoving her to the ground because she spilled a box of cereal; throwing her sister across a room.
Memories of the sexual abuse are less clear — Urton said she unconsciously blocked out a lot of that trauma. But she remembers being little and feeling him on top of her and under her nightgown, and smelling alcohol on his breath.
Ragan Henninger, deputy director of the San Jose Housing Department, didn’t know about the trauma Urton had gone through.
“It sheds a light on why she certainly leads with her heart and is always such a reliable partner,” Henninger said. “Even when we call her with the most Herculean of tasks, she’s always up for the challenge.”
One day when she was 15, Urton decided to fight back, punching her father until he fell and she could run away. After that, he began disappearing for weeks or months at a time, often leaving Urton alone without money or food. When he did come home, Urton would couch-surf at friends’ houses or sleep in her car.
About one month before Urton’s high school graduation, her father told her he’d sold their house and she had to get out. Urton lost the only semblance of home she had.
“I don’t want to say it was all worthwhile, because you go through life feeling broken to some extent,” Urton said. “But at least those terrible experiences have meaning now because it wasn’t for nothing. When I meet one of our shelter guests and she says, ‘Oh honey I was raped,’ I can hold her hand and I can say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ because I get it. I know what that feels like. ‘I lost everything, I’m terrified, I’m so hungry.’ ‘I get it. Let me give you a sandwich. I’ve been there.'”
Urton worked various jobs to feed and support herself through school, including at Kentucky Fried Chicken, a shoe store and a business that copied medical records for hospitals. A few months after her father sold their condo, she found a cheap, seedy room to rent. She graduated high school and enrolled in community college. When she was 27, she followed her boyfriend to the Bay Area and finished her psychology degree, and then a master’s, at San Jose State University.
Urton launched a career in organizations that focused on families’ and children's’ mental health, working her way up from a therapist to the C-suite. Her father died in 2011. In 2015, Urton was hired as CEO of HomeFirst.
She made it look easy, said her sister, 57-year-old Kris Rogers. But Rogers, who remembers the violence and uncertainty of their childhood, knows it wasn’t.
“Her experiences really have made her who she is today,” said Rogers, who lives in Sacramento, “and she’s taken from them and just done something incredible with them.”
The pandemic has brought additional challenges over the past year as Urton scrambled to help city and county officials protect homeless residents from COVID-19. The city tapped HomeFirst to turn community centers, convention halls and other spaces into emergency homeless shelters. Then, HomeFirst worked with the city on a new experiment: small, modular units that house people individually to reduce the spread of the virus. Urton’s team runs two of those sites, one at Monterey and Bernal roads, the other on Rue Ferrari.
Now, San Francisco-based organizations are in talks with HomeFirst to replicate San Jose’s modular model. Officials in Sunnyvale are interested as well, Urton said. It’s exciting, she said, because it feels like a real solution.
“If I would have had a unit available to me like that when I was homeless as a teenager, I would have gone straight to college and graduated instead of at 31, at 23,” Urton said. “And I could have started my life and my retirement savings earlier.”
Because she’s experienced homelessness, Urton listens to the unhoused people she serves and makes changes based on their needs, said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home. For example, Urton opened all HomeFirst shelters to pets, so residents don’t have to choose between their furry companion and a bed.
Bruce Ives, CEO of LifeMoves, called Urton’s decision to share her story “incredibly brave.”
“There are a lot of other people out there who are going through similar things now,” he said. “And being able to hear Andrea’s story, to read about what she went through, I think it would be incredibly helpful for a lot of other people.”