This Formerly Homeless Harvard Grad Is Using Her Story To Change How We Help The Homeless

by Gila Lyons

April 23, 2018

Photo by Peretz Partensky/Flickr.

It’s difficult not to be dazzled by the accomplishments of Connie Chung. The 40-year-old is a published author with a bachelor’s degree from UC, Berkeley, and three graduate degrees from Harvard: two master’s degrees and a doctorate of education. Given her academic prowess, one might be surprised to find that Chung spent six years of her youth homeless and alone on the streets of Los Angeles.

At the time, Chung was in the throes of adolescence, and she recalls that school was one of the few places she could rely on for stability. And it’s a good thing she did find somewhere to turn; childhood illiteracy is correlated to lifelong illiteracy. “A poor family doesn’t have books at home or maternal education, even if Mom is intelligent. If you’re despondent about life, and survival is a challenge, literacy won’t be a priority. These kids are told they’re stupid and that college is not an option. Early illiteracy is hard to crawl out of,” Chung says.

Research backs up what she says about literacy for poor families. Approximately 15 million children are currently living in poverty in the United States, and 60% of low-income families have no children’s books at home. Since pediatric researchers report that reading at home in childhood has a considerable positive effect on literacy and reading skills, 60% of children from low-income families are at a disadvantage.

Chung worked hard to make up for that disadvantage. By keeping up with reading at school, she developed skills that would be crucial for her future.

She stayed in school full time while she was homeless. She loved learning, especially in English class, and considered school her own “refuge out of hell.” She tested well, which became her saving grace, and she earned a spot in a program for gifted students. “That saved me,” she says, “because I was bussed out of poorly performing, underfunded local schools, which had issues with pregnancy and gang warfare, and to a well-resourced public school.”

But it wasn’t until high school that Chung fell in love with English class, finding solace in reading and writing, especially poetry. “I liked ‘The Temple of My Familiar,’” Chung remembers. “There was something very beautiful about the way Alice Walker posed black feminist thought and literature, and the characters were very deep.”

Chung performed well academically, though she admits she had some behavioral issues that went largely ignored. “[Teachers] weren’t equipped to deal with my needs and had no idea I was homeless... I didn’t talk about it until I was 25 years old,” she reflects. “I was surrounded by overachievers, many of whom were achieving more than me.”

It was easier than she thought to keep the truth from them. “There’s this idea that East Asians are a model minority group and are buffered from poverty and do well in school, but that wasn’t my family’s migration narrative.” Chung’s parents, natives of Pyongyang, North Korea, left for South Korea and then the United States to try to build a better life for themselves and their family. “They were traumatized from North Korea and didn’t understand how Western society worked, and it showed. They grew up in such a repressive regime they didn’t understand how to get by. But they worked so hard to give their kids food.”

Though her parents were highly intelligent and highly resilient, life in America was a struggle. “We grew up in dire poverty,” Chung recalls. “There were problems with eating regularly, keeping furniture in the house, and keeping the electricity on.” Chung’s first episode of homelessness began at age 12.

Every year, an estimated 2 million youth experience a period of homelessness, which puts them at greater risk of sex trafficking, which is estimated to affect 162,000 homeless children a year. As a young girl on her own, Chung says she was at particularly high risk. She remembers running from men in Hollywood who were trying to kidnap her, and though she managed to escape them, other girls she met on the street shared their horrors of being taken and sold sexually.

Covenant House, the largest “privately funded charity in the Americas providing … services to homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked, and exploited youth,” surveyed youth at their sites throughout the U.S. and Canada. They identified nearly 1 in 5 as victims of trafficking, and of those, 68% were trafficked while homeless.

Chung survived on the streets for six years before benefiting from Covenant House’s services, but when she was 18, she walked by the Hollywood chapter and pushed through the front doors. At first she thought, “I’m not going to be here long.” But, she ended up staying for four months.

Chung credits Covenant House with saving her life. There, she had a safe bed, regular meals, and encouragement from the staff. “They believed in me,” Chung says. “It’s a place of high structure and normalcy. I felt so supported and so loved. It was a sanctuary like a hospital. Beyond being homeless, I would willingly live there again.”

Chung remembers meeting a woman who was illiterate in her bunk who eventually asked Chung to read her the Bible every night. “She would constantly tell me how smart I was and how I was destined for great things,” says Chung. Despite all her success at school, Chung didn’t often hear that kind of praise or have adults in her life who emphasized that they believed in her potential. The support she received at Covenant House, combined with the skills she was able to hone at school, gave her the confidence to apply to UC Berkeley. Chung says that by the time she graduated as class commencement speaker of her department (anthropology), being away from her family and having housing enabled her to focus on her work.

Berkeley awarded her a scholarship to attend Harvard. Her first master’s degree was in risk and prevention (now called prevention science), her second master’s degree was in human development and psychology, and her doctorate of education is in human development and psychology. Today, Chung works for Misssey, an anti-sex-trafficking organization, as the case manager for transitional age youth. She also volunteers at functions with Covenant House youth. And by taking online courses in exchange for adjunct teaching hours, she says, “I am slowly working toward completing my license as a clinical psychologist.”

Chung believes that education is a powerful tool to escape homelessness. She is wary, however, of the “this formerly homeless person graduated from Harvard so you can too” narrative. She explains that such a narrative “puts a lot of pressure on the individual, and it’s about so much more than that. Youth homelessness is a consequence of family instability, poverty, foster care, and other risk factors. When you’re on the streets, it’s hard to continue school, or you get a very inferior education because you go to underfunded under-resourced schools, and people don’t believe in you. Surviving on the streets is so [overwhelming] it’s hard to focus on school.”

But it is possible. Chung hopes our country can achieve a sharp decline in youth homelessness by mitigating risk factors, such as family dysfunction and systemic failure, particularly in the foster care and juvenile system. She also advocates for providing trauma-informed mental and behavioral health care in schools and identifying children and youth who are vulnerable to homelessness or currently homeless.

Chung believes that it’s not pedagogy or educational policy that’s going to help homeless youth. Rather, schools need to incorporate mental health and substance abuse treatment in their offerings. “If you address physical, emotional, and academic needs, you take a much more holistic approach to literacy,” she says.

Those needs are pressing for homeless youth, who face higher risks than their peers for mental health issues, abuse, trafficking, and even death. Advocates say that getting these young people’s basic needs met should be the first priority on their journey toward educational wellness.

“I believe it takes a village to raise a child,” Chung says. “Rachel Lloyd argues that every sexually exploited child should be surrounded by at least 11 adults who love them, and I believe it’s the same for homeless children.”

In July 2017, Chung and the rest of the team at Misssey celebrated their 10th anniversary. Their services for sexually exploited youth continue to grow, including leadership training, tech skills, and anti-trafficking curriculum.

Chung reports that Misssey recently moved into a new location, a remodeled Victorian house that “feels like home.” There, she continues to be inspired by the kids building new, sustainable paths for themselves — just like she once did.

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