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Andrea Urton - Homeless to CEO

Andrea Urton is a 55-year-old woman who has overcome homelessness in California. Her mother became terminally ill while pregnant, and by the time Andrea was 2, her mother was the 34th person diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, causing her to be bedridden for most of Andrea's childhood. Andrea's paternal grandparents stepped in to help raise her and her sister during this time. Andrea's father seemed to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and he self-medicated with alcohol. She described him to be very volatile and violent.

After her mother died when Andrea was 9, Andrea's father moved the family away from their support system. Andrea stated that her father physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her and her sister. She shared: "I remember walking in to disrupt a fight he was having with my sister and I watched him slap her so hard that he picked her up off the ground and knocked her into the wall across the hallway." Soon after moving, her father's girlfriend moved in and lived with them for two years. Andrea shared that things were much better when she was there, as he was not abusive to the women in his life and she would keep him under control.

Due to financial troubles, they moved back into their original apartment when Andrea was 15. She shared that it was extremely dangerous - the doors and windows didn't lock, so people were constantly breaking into her garage. Andrea had to walk to the bus stop every morning in the dark and mentioned "I had been approached for sexual favors and had several men try to accost me on my way to school." She added: "People have some kind of radar for someone who has been victimized. They know how to seek that personality out and try to exploit it. It didn't work."

At 15 and a half, Andrea left. She shared: "One night, my father got so angry at us for playing around in our bedroom that he came in and grabbed me by my hair and made me clean all around the floor while pulling my hair. I was able to punch him a couple of times in the stomach and chest area and he literally picked me up and threw me across the haul into the bedroom and told me to wait there. That's when I got up and left the house for a few weeks."

At this time, Andrea did everything she could to find shelter. She began couch surfing but luckily had 4 close friends that she was able to stay with on and off. In return, Andrea would cook and clean around the house. She also had a full-time job at KFC to make sure she could support herself.

A few months later, when Andrea was 16, her father permanently moved out of their apartment to live on a boat. Andrea was now completely alone in the apartment. She shared: "I made myself three promises: I promised myself I would not get pregnant, I would not get addicted to drugs, and I would stay in school. And, I did those things. I graduated with honors from high school."

Just before Andrea graduated high school, her father told her that he sold the apartment and she needed to find another place to live. Andrea began sleeping in her car, couch surfing, and staying the night at school if she could. Fortunately, Andrea resolved her homelessness on her own by renting a room in a group home. She shared: "It wasn't fun or pretty, and the men would often try to get into my bedroom at night which I had to keep locked at all times." However, she was grateful to have a place to stay. She lived there until she and a friend got a place together.

Andrea was housing insecure for the next 5 years but was able to stay housed and receive her A.A. degree from Long Beach City College. While in school, she started her career in business while volunteering for Al-Anon sponsoring kids, groups 7-11, to help them cope with alcoholic and drug-addicted parents. After working for some time, Andrea decided to move up to San Jose and finish her B.A. and M.S. in Clinical Psychology at San Jose State University. This is when she began working in the nonprofit sector, leading her to become the CEO of HomeFirst! Andrea also received her executive education at Harvard Business School in 2022.

Listen to Andrea's episode of The Project WHY Podcast here.

Donate to Project WHY today so that we can continue to interview these amazing people! Project WHY is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit corporation registered with the State of California & the United States government. 100% of your tax-deductible donation goes to supporting individuals experiencing homelessness! :)

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