Zibby is joined by bestselling author and award-winning child welfare advocate David Ambroz to discuss his gut-wrenching and unforgettable memoir (and Zibby’s 2022 Book of the Year!!), A Place Called Home. David shares his own courageous story, his thoughts on how listeners can help those in the foster care system, his updates on his siblings and his own life, and how he has managed to stay so positive in the face of crushing challenges.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, David. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Place Called Home: A Memoir.

David Ambroz: Thank you so much.

Zibby: As you know, I’ve been stalking you on my DMs because I read your whole book. I had started it, of course, before, but I finally had time to read the whole thing and could not put it down, finished it in one day. It’s amazing. Your story is amazing. Your writing is amazing. The whole thing, my hat’s off to you. It’s amazing.

David: Thank you. I’m very grateful. I also want to hug you for reading it all in one day. It’s a lot. A lot of folks have expressed similarly, but I know that it’s a lot to get through. There’s a lot of real experiences that I had that have been daunting for folks to read through, not just because they had the same thing, but it’s related to their own life. Thank you for spending the time with little David Ambroz.

Zibby: Yes, that was my Thanksgiving. In fact, my brother was a little annoyed at the end. He’s like, “You were in a book all day again. Come on.” I was like, “It was just such a good book.”

David: Is anyone surprised? Do they know you? Come on.

Zibby: They know me. I know. I was like, “I was in the room where the football was going on. I don’t want to watch football. I want to read. It was nothing personal.” It was so fitting to read on Thanksgiving. It helped — not helped, but it gave so much more meaning to the day and the sense of family and what you went through and making sure — we all say, oh, we’re so grateful, blah, blah, blah. Hearing your story from start to finish and what you went through and your search for family and the bad lottery card you were dealt in your life, basically, and how you’ve overcome everything was the perfect thing. I’ll stop fawning. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what your memoir is really about and why you decided to share your very, very personal story and, as you said, some very painful moments with the rest of us?

David: My story began forty-plus years ago in New York City. I was born into homelessness. A lot of folks have asked me about the before time. I don’t have a before time. I never remember a place where we lived, the place we would call home. We constantly were moving from my earliest memory, living in the nooks and crannies of New York City and then other places, ultimately. It was about survival. It was about where the next meal is coming from. It was about what violence is going on around us. It was in the midst of a city that was grappling with an AIDS epidemic that I didn’t understand. We were going from shelter to train station to park and around and around. I have a brother and sister I’m still very close with and a mom who was cursed with a mental illness. I actually start the book with a dedication to my mom. As you read, I love her very much. In fact, I’m actually her caregiver today all these years later. I start the dedication to my mom because one of the messages in the book I hope people get is how painful it is to lose a family member to mental health.

So many people in our country are robbed because of this criminal called mental health. We don’t talk about it. We don’t support families that are grappling with someone that might have some challenges. My mom gets the first page of the book. It’s dedicated to my mom, who taught me to conquer one impossible thing at a time and to forgive. We went through that whole cycle of poverty and then ultimately ended up in foster care. I say to folks — and I mean this. I learned when I went into foster care that hell had a basement. What I experienced there — I only talk about a few of the foster homes. Other than one wonderful foster family, I had a really negative experience for many reasons. Again, I hope folks don’t walk away condemning social workers or foster parents. I hope what they realize is, what have we individually done to support foster kids and these people that are actually opening up their homes, imperfect as they are? I went through foster care separated from my siblings and ultimately committed a little bit of fraud and got a grant to study in Spain where I really began the process of rebuilding a human out of the pieces of almost eighteen years of violence and poverty.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Do you feel that your mother’s mental illness was something that, with the right treatment and medication, she could’ve overcome? You say you’re her caregiver now. I really am dying for the PS to this book. Is there an alternate world where you feel like had she just been on the right meds or had she just been in a facility, the abuse and the horrifying events that she inflicted upon you and your siblings would be remedied? Was that a possibility?

David: Two thirds of the kids entering foster care are there because of neglect, which is a euphemism for poverty. We’re breaking up families because people missed a rent check or can’t provide food. More than half the schools in the country provide free lunch to the majority of their students, which means the parents aren’t eating. My mom is not one of those two thirds that are entering because of neglect. We were in the system because we desperately needed to be out of her custody. Her mental health issues are treatable. However, it doesn’t mean that she’s going to be “normal.” She can never parent. She should never have parented. That will just be the rest of her life and from her earliest teenage years, as I understand it, was her situation she was in. However, what she did to us and what we survived can’t compare, in my mind, to the jail that she’s in. My mom is in a prison of delusions and has been since she was a child. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live like that, constantly fearful, constantly. Her illness, while we can mitigate it with medication, and she’s stable now and has housing, will never be “cured.” It can be treated. It can be mitigated. My mom can live a decent, humane life not devolving on the streets of the city afraid of shadows. That is the best we can hope for. That’s what I’m very proud and humbled to have the responsibility to do for my mom.

Zibby: The empathy that you’re showing, that could have gone in so many ways. I find it hard to believe there could be anything worse than some of the things that you endured. To say that it would be worse for her, even though she inflicted it, is just the most magnanimous act of generosity of spirit, really, to even say.

David: Thank you. I got a little chills. It’s hard. When people hurt you, it’s really hard. The thing I’ve always been able to do — it’s like yoga. You have to practice it. I’m speaking, probably, to a bunch of moms. It’s my mother. My mom, if she had cancer, we wouldn’t condemn her. We wouldn’t. We would love her. We would put ourselves in a color and march. Because of what she has, she has certain manifestations. She has certain outbursts. She has certain violences. It doesn’t mean I can be okay with that, the physical pain, the near-death experiences, but it’s my mom. I don’t want my mom suffering. I choose not to be mad at my mom because of this illness she has. It’s something I have to visit. My siblings aren’t the same. All of us have different resolutions with her. I am much more involved in her life than my siblings are. That’s fine. That’s my choice. There’s so many kids that have parents with mental health issues. They just suffer. I want people to see a different route. I want people to have empathy towards these women like my mom who are poor and suffering and not condemn her.

Zibby: Wow. One of the many things you did so well is point out, in a very analytical way as you describe your own emotional journey, some of the barriers and systemic issues that are facing people in poverty, people within foster care, all of these things, including something like not only mental health treatment, but even health care, even with your teeth, the basic things. You’re like, here are the eight million reasons why this is not happening and that’s not happening. Here’s what happens as a result of that. What you gently do at the end of every chapter, almost, is say, we are all culpable here. This is not the fault of this one family. This is our system letting this happen. Everyone reading this, everyone, is a part of this. It is not just the perpetrators. Talk a little about that.

David: I got chills again. It’s beautiful to be seen and to have someone understand what I was trying to do. This is not a bucket of things that happened to me, nor am I throwing stones at people that wronged me. That’s not what this is about. It’s not what my life’s about. I think of poverty as women’s work, not because I think it should be, but because that’s what our society has done. The majority of people suffering in poverty that have children are women and moms. That system that we have, we need an army of women, probably, and their allies to fix it. People like my mom, and without mental health issues, are put through the grinder. We had to have an address in order to apply for rental assistance. We had to have an address to receive food stamps. We didn’t have either of those things. It’s insane. I remember I had this analogy in my mind as I was growing up. It’s like families are living in poverty in the water, and they’re drowning. This lifeboat comes along. This person reaches out and pulls the person out of the water. The woman and the children go, . They breath in deeply. They’re like, thank you. Then the program drops them, but don’t worry, there’s another program in the boat that’s going to lift them out for two minutes. What if we pulled the person out of the water and put them in the damn boat? Humans are messy. There’s not a solution. We need a systemic approach to lift people out of poverty.

Here’s the kicker. We’re doing it. In my lifetime, we’ve halved the number of kids living in poverty. If we constantly scream fire, no one wants to go into that building. We have to actually pay people to go into burning buildings. The public needs to understand we’re winning. We just have to work harder and faster because the kids need us to. Poverty programs, imperfect as they are, we have to stop denigrating government. We are the government. I am here today because of the imperfect food stamps, imperfect rental assistance, imperfect violence mitigation programs, imperfect schools. Yet here I am. I think we have to honor that and make them work harder and better. We can do that. I read the other day — it goes to your earlier question. Why did I write this? There are 118,000 homeless children in New York City. Yes, that’s right. You’re like, no. 118,000. Think about the town you grew up in, and imagine they’re all children. We have to work harder, better, and faster, but we’re doing it. I’m very optimistic we can do it. We have to design systems that embrace messiness. I worked on extending foster care to twenty-one because who is truly independent at eighteen? Who’s independent at thirty? We’re making progress. I’m very, very bullish on our capability as a people. I think Americans are inherently good. I fundamentally believe that despite everything. We just have to tap into that well of goodness to motivate our elected people to work harder and faster to lift people like my family up, to support good systems that don’t abuse kids. We can do it.

Zibby: You thought through the whole system. Obviously, you become an advocate for it. We get to walk through the journey and the one — where is it? In New Jersey or somewhere? Where you took the train and sat there, and you came up with all these brilliant ways of — can you give foster parents pensions? Let’s give incentives for people to do this in another way. Let’s see what we can do. You’ve rethought the system from the inside out. You are the perfect person to be the changemaker in this area. Is there a privatized foster care system? Is there something else other than — I feel like one of the messages at the end is, make sure to elect the right people to the positions who can effect these changes. A lot goes into each candidate. Is it all on them? What else can we as citizens do to help? I’m sitting here in New York City. I’m like, 118,000 kids are outside the — what can we do today to help? There are so many different nonprofits and organizations helping. If there was some way to have been helped, either systemically, individually — what can people listening do? That was a lot.

David: That’s the most important question. First, read the afterword, as you’re referencing. That’s a very mapped-out approach to how we can fix it. First and foremost, what I ask folks to do is close their eyes and imagine putting your own child into foster care. What does that system look like? That is what we need to build. We don’t need to fix this or tweak that or blah, blah, blah. If we don’t have that, that’s a problem. That’s why we have the system and the outcomes we have today. If you’re always wondering out there, “What do we do?” constantly put yourselves in that moment where I have to put the most precious thing to me in the custody of the state. Who’s in charge? What are they doing? What do the frontline workers look like? What are they acting like? What are their incentives? If we don’t have that, you need to constantly be steering the ship towards it. That steering’s going to depend on your resources, both economic and time and capacity in whatever measurement. I don’t ask everyone to help every single homeless person off the street. That’s just not realistic. In fact, it’ll do the opposite. It’ll make you jaded.

Instead of starting every sentence, as we often do as people, “I can’t because…,” we have to reorient. We are a country that sent a person to the moon. Now we are proud when we fill a pothole. We shouldn’t be proud of that. We should get back to that energy as a country and as a people where we can send people to other planets. Okay, great. What does that mean in physical reality? It’s not enough, once every couple to years, to vote. It’s just not enough. It does not a democracy or a republic make. We have to be engaged as citizens — I love your pod — especially as moms. Every time I watch an election, they’re always talking about the moms. Where are the moms? Where are the suburban moms? Where are the moms? They’ve evolved, soccer moms, this mom, Latina moms, but it’s always moms because it’s the beating heart of our country. I think constantly about, how do I reach these people that are like my mom, loved us imperfectly, but loved us? That empathy is what we need a tsunami of into our politics. Not since 1999 has a presidential debate brought up child poverty. Every single debate has talked about coal miners, which we should talk about. There’s a couple thousand of them. There are 8.4 million children in America living in poverty, 8.4. Why don’t we talk about it? Well, who is going to start that conversation? The people that are parents, moms. We have to ask our elected leaders. Every school board meeting, I want a mom to go there and be like, how are you helping homeless children? Do you have a food bank there for kids? Do you have a clothing closet? How do you integrate a kid that’s from foster care that’s just popped into the school? Are they allowed to play sports? Do they need fees? I’ll raise money for that. Constantly, if that’s your capability, ask that question. Maybe you’re married to an elected. Maybe you are an elected. Constantly bring this stuff up.

Women are in office. Women have power. Women are moms. We can do this. We can integrate this population in our hearts and minds. Children, we should be constantly talking about them, but we don’t. People know every single member of the supreme court. How many of us know our school boards? When I think about equity, when I think about the murder of George Floyd, no one can name a local superior court judge, but they’re the ones who convict young boys of color. We know and we fetishize politics in DC. Why don’t we look local and see what we can do as individuals? If you walk by a homeless person and you think, “I can’t because…,” fine. I get it. I do that too. The pivot, the fundamental change, the moon shot for children in poverty is to then switch and go, what can I do? For each of us, that’s going to be different. I have an afterword in my book. It’s a policy document. It’s a love letter. It’s very simply written, trying to get folks to focus on foster care as a fulcrum point when we change things and intervene. What I hope we do is reorient ourselves to be, a country that sends people to the moon is a country that wants to end child poverty because we must.

Zibby: You need to run for president. Why would you not do that? So many people are so negative. There’s so much divisive chatter. Everything is what we can’t do. It all seems so dire and terrible. Here you are. You’re like, I have faith. I’m like, really? You’re the one?

David: Yes, I do. I have endless faith. I’m sitting here in my home. I own my home. I own my home, folks. I was the president of the Planning Commission of Los Angeles, and I remember when the mayor appointed me, which is the person who oversees real estate and all sorts of things. Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed me. I’m like, “Mayor, are you sure?” He’s like, “You’re absolutely the right person to do this.” I sat up there for seven and a half years overseeing real estate construction and home development, all this stuff, cannabis, home sharing. I remember sitting up there all the time being like — I had a little bit of the imposter syndrome. I just thought about the four-year-old boy living in Grand Central or in the nooks and crannies of the city. I’m like, I am going to imbue everything that I do and remember. This one guy got up there. I remember he was arguing against a shelter for women and children. He’s a member of the public. He came to testify. He said, “If these women can’t handle their kids, they should’ve had abortions.” I’m going to get emotional now. I’m dying because there’s these women from the shelter that are sitting in the front two that are having to hear this vitriol, this hate, which is what our public debate has devolved into. I did a point of order. I interrupted him. I just said, “Hey, if you’re trying to convince me to vote against a shelter for women and children by saying my mom should’ve aborted me and my siblings, you’re not going to get my vote.” We need an army of people. In what other country would I even be alive? What other time would I be alive? Never mind having one of the most powerful positions to shut that down, to vote for that project. I am so bullish that we can do more. We’ve halved the number of kids in poverty, folks. Let’s do that again every two years until it’s zero. We can do it.

Zibby: I know I’ve been talking a lot about what we can take away from the book. I’m not showing as much what’s in the book because I feel like it’s so important for people to hear what you have to say having gone through all of what you went through just by reading. There’s also this whole element of the sexuality discrimination that you went through and having so many people try to change you and your having to come to terms with that and not feeling like there is a home for you within the system. Talk about that a little. David is showing us a Mickey Mouse hat with rainbow ears. That moment, by the way, the end of the chapter about Disney World, I literally closed the book for a minute. I was like, I have chills up and down my — I read it out loud. I read that section out loud to my husband. I was like, “Listen to this.”

David: I want to talk about Disney, but I also want to talk about the fact that your bookshelf is rainbow, which I love. My lessons about my sexual orientation began as a child. I was in New York City. I didn’t understand it, but I sort of understood it. All around me were young men dying of AIDS. They were in the shelters. They were on the streets. The lesson was profoundly clear. I was a child. I didn’t understand it exactly, but I sort of understood, as kids do these things, things in general, that this is wrong. I am wrong. There is something wrong with me. This is what’s going to happen. Then in most states, it was illegal for me to even have consensual sex until I was in my thirties. When I went into foster care, I was diagnosed with something at the time. It’s still in the DSM, but it’s different applied. It’s called gender identification disorder. Through active therapy, malpractice, I would say, and physical and other violence through my time, except for Holly and Steve, my foster parents, folks tried to make me less gay. I could just tell the listeners that I am a committed homosexual. I’m very happy, but it was violent and painful. Just like with my mom, I think about my life, and I don’t need to be religious or for or against religion to believe that I — I can’t help but think that my life was what it was to make me a tool for good. One of the goods that I’m proudest of in my life is I worked very much for a very long time to outlaw the curing of gay kids in foster care in our country. It took until President Obama’s second term, but we did it. I’m proud to have been part of that and a leader in that movement with Child Welfare League of America and and others.

If I hadn’t had that experience, it wouldn’t have lit that fire, and kids today may have still been experiencing some of that horror. I’m very proud of that work. That’s what I’ve tried to do with all of these things, is say, okay, what can I do with this? What should we do? How can I be part of the solution? How can I stop throwing stones? We live in a place where we can actually make the change we want to see. It took decades. That was so hard because I knew that every single day kids were going through reparative therapy. I knew about the violence. I knew. I knew exactly what they were going through. It took me decades to deal with it, which is part of the reason you asked first, why did I write the book? Many reasons, one of which was the shame I had for all of the things done to me, all of the things I survived. I was just mortified that if people knew — I was just done. I’d reached my mid-thirties. I was like, you know, I got to let this shit go. I got to move forward. I got to release this that’s holding me back and let the wind in my sail take me even farther. Part of it was we’re still being debated today, aren’t we? Our civil rights are in jeopardy. The senate is hopefully going to vote in this lame-duck session whether or not I can have a relationship as recognized by the state. The work is not done. I’m very proud that I took all this horror and did something with it. My own it took a very long time.

Zibby: It didn’t take a long time. You’re doing such a good job. It’s superhuman, what you’re doing. I literally am sitting here listening to you being like, look at all this love in his heart. It’s so unlikely to have come out of what you went through in this position of kindness and help. I know this is what you were like all along. Still, to not have been robbed of this, your fundamental goodness as a person, is amazing. You’re doing it every day. It’s amazing.

David: Thank you. I appreciate that. The work continues. I’m working right now on a project. A third of the homeless in LA, in most cities, actually, in the country, coastal cities, are former foster kids. A third. We’re emancipating kids at eighteen to homelessness. I’m working on a project to build a dorm at a community college to emancipate them into two-year vocational or transfer. We own the land. We have a vocational crisis in the country. These kids are our children as a people. These are our institutions. We can do this. That’s how I feel so much about all these issues. Somehow, we have this learned indifference or benign neglect, except it’s not benign. We are neglecting the public square. If I don’t channel all this stuff into something, I think I would lose my mind. I think I would be hard and grumpy. I always thought of happiness as a peak. You kind of get to the peak. Then you come down. Then you hopefully get to it again. I’m at a plateau. I’m chillaxing at the top. I’m super happy. I constantly am like, what could we do? What do I do? I relax. I bake bread. I’m literally wearing Lululemon with a DC shirt. I have a good life. If we renew that faith in each other, it makes us richer. I am happier for it. I meet the most interesting people. I advance my career. I have such weird-ass adventures. Who gets recognized by the President of the United States, President Obama? Who do you respect more than President Obama? These things are meaningful. They’re seen. We should all be doing more of them. I kind of love that I’ve had this Forrest Gump life of mine that’s let me have these experiences, believe it or not.

Zibby: I feel like your book needs to be a movie. I know it would be hard to watch, but I feel like a lot of people don’t read. Not the people listening to this, but you know. Have you thought about that?

David: I think we need to use all mechanisms of storytelling. What are we as a species? What are we as an animal? We’re storytellers. It was verbal before it was written. Now we have all these different mechanisms for doing it. Absolutely. It’s not going to be a dumpster fire. There is such love and adventure. I got to live in a church. I remember watching Harry Potter when he went to live at Hogwarts and how cold and ethereal it all was. I immediately thought — first of all, he’s a foster kid. Kinship foster care. I was like, yeah, foster kids. I also thought, gosh, I know what it’s like to live in these big, drafty buildings with nooks and crannies that are just bizarre. There’s adventures and joy. We talk about joy, not just trauma and violence. I had the most amazing foster parents, Holly and Steve. There was so much love. Who doesn’t want to watch a movie about love? I think there’s big feels in this. I’m hoping it does become something. I’m trying. I’ve talked to a few folks who were like, no one wants to read a book about child abuse. I’m like, this is not a book about child abuse. It’s a book about hope. It’s a book about love and the imperfect country we are, and people, and how we try and be better at it. I’m hoping. I’m working on it. Maybe someone listening wants to make a movie. Call me. Be glad to work with you.

Zibby: Perfect. The part about your mother converting you to Judaism and the way in which she did that, are you Jewish now? Do you identify as Jewish?

David: Oh, gosh. What am I?

Zibby: Just wondering.

David: Yeah, I am ethnically Jewish. I learned that through doing a DNA test. I am religious. I just don’t think anyone’s cornered the market on God. My philosophy and religious belief is that God wants us to be good to each other and the planet. That’s the altar where I worship. I enjoy the traditions and faiths. Not only was I converted to Judaism, most of the foster homes I was in, with one exception, maybe two, converted me to their religion. I would constantly cycle through. I kind of joke sometimes when I speak to church groups. I like to say I met God through food. This is what I mean by that. I used to go to religious institutions. They had free food. You’d have to get a little proselytized, which was fine by me. Then they would feed you. It was really good food sometimes. Sometimes it was not. I’m homeless and starving, so I ate the food. I used to think when I was young, I was like, clearly, this religion and God are not getting along because their food is so awful. God would not let them have terrible food. Then I discovered Black Baptists, who had delicious food. I thought, oh, gosh, these people are in touch with their God. Then I went to a Unitarian church. It was the first time I had Indian food. Unitarian Universalists. It was chef’s kiss, flavor and complexity. Today, I’m a vegetarian. I wasn’t then. I sort of am innately a vegetarian. I just don’t like animal cruelty. I had never had flavor like that before. I don’t know how old I was because I don’t know how old I was for much of my life. I was like, these people have a direct line to God. Going through foster care, they would convert me. It was not as traumatic as the one in the book. It just taught me that the people that preach the loudest are often the least living up to the values they purport to stand for. I try to live my life according to my values. I don’t try and convert anybody. I just try to live a meaningful life. I enjoy my life, but the part that I enjoy most is when I’m doing these things. That’s why I wrote the book. How can I use my story to — it’s so funny. I cyberstalked you before I knew we had a connection.

Zibby: Oh, yeah?

David: Yeah, because they’re like, you have to reach moms. I’m like, . You’re like, . The more I talked to folks through my life before the book, they’re like, you need an army of moms behind you because this is your demo. The more I’ve talked to people around the country, the more I’m like, yes, I do. I think moms are just inherently more empathetic because you have to be. I have a foster son. This is my foster son.

Zibby: Wait, bring it closer. I can’t see. Aw. He’s old. He graduated college already?

David: Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

David: He’s in grad school. He came over. He changed me. He made me a different human, much more aware, painful, love. He’s the most important thing I’ve ever done and opened up my heart, opened up parts of my heart I didn’t even know were closed. I think that feeling that we have as parents is so profound. I hope this thing lights the fire. We can do this. We can change. We can love. We can share the love that we have for our own family with the community. We have community. It’s called a country. We can do this in our cities and our towns. We can change it. Do you know — I learned a fact the other day, which I have to verify, but I believe it’s true. Not a single member of the school board where I live has a kid in school. We have to get hyperlocal. We have to figure out what we can do in our communities so that people like my son, who grew up in foster care with me as well, has a different outcome. We can share the love we have for our own kids with other people and each other.

Zibby: Amazing. I have a bazillion more things to talk to you about, but I don’t want to go on too long or no one will listen. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing your story and for just being the beautiful human being that you are. It’s really inspiring and amazing.

David: Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it.



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