How College Saved Me from the Streets

Kristopher Sharp - large version 2The many years I spent growing up in foster care took away any chance I had at a normal life. During my time in the system I lived in over 20 different homes – sometimes moving every 6 to 8 months – never staying in one place long enough to create support systems, build community or establish roots. I think that at times this was for the better because almost all of the 20 plus homes I lived in were imbued with abuse.

By the time I aged out of foster care I had been raped and beaten more than I want to remember – often by the very people the state of Texas was paying to “care” for me. Barely an adult and fresh out of the system, I was homeless, forgotten, abandoned and alone. My life was reduced to two pairs of clothes, a well-worn backpack and the streets. By day I begged strangers for their change and by night I was turning tricks for a place to stay, a shower, a hot meal or whatever resources I could trade my body for.

That was my reality.

On the streets, I found out very quickly that there aren’t a lot of resources for homeless youth in Houston, especially if you’re gay. So I learned to make due with what I had. Most nights, I would wander in Montrose until someone picked me up. Sometimes I’d get lucky and he’d let me spend the night, but more often than not, I’d be forced to sleep on the roof of a shopping strip in the north side of Houston – no more than 10 blocks from the group home I was living at when I aged out of the system and into homelessness.

I spent the next 6 months on the streets doing this over and over again, living day-to-day, surviving through the street economy – alone, ashamed and guilt ridden. One day in August of 2010, I was in downtown Houston searching for an air-conditioned space and a restroom and ended up wandering into the University of Houston-Downtown.

That day, the course of my life changed.

Youth who age out of the foster care system in Texas are eligible to utilize a waiver that covers the complete costs of tuition and fees at state-funded institutions of higher education within the state.

It was on that fateful day in August that I found out about this waiver, and with the help of university staff I registered for classes and applied for financial aid. I spent the majority of my first semester homeless and struggling to keep up with my course work, but eventually I would receive a refund check for about $2,000 that I used to get my first apartment. I live in that very same apartment today, and in May of this year I will graduate from the University of Houston-Downtown with a bachelor’s degree in social work.

My life was, still is and will always be valuable. I wasn’t a lost cause, a degenerate or a waste of space. I was a young person, who because of my life’s circumstances ended up on the streets. But with the right opportunity, I was able to surpass those circumstances and accomplish so much in such a short period of time.

I’ve advocated for greater protections for foster youth – testifying countless times before committees in Congress and the Texas legislature, I’ve worked to elect progressives to public office – most recently working for Senator Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign, I’ve won national leadership awards from the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBTQ Taskforce. I’ve even had the chance to intern on Capitol Hill for Senator Patty Murray and after sharing my personal story with her, she was moved to introduce the 2014 Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.

Yes, at one point in my life I was a foster kid, but by the grace of God I am now a strong, resilient and intelligent contributing member of my community – I am worth something – and so is every other foster youth.

My journey illustrates the capacity that education has to change lives. Children in foster care deserve to have the promise of a future that only an education can provide. Without it we are almost certainly doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty, abuse and disenfranchisement that has already plagued our lives over and over again.

We are the future. Invest in us, value us, recognize our worth, and watch us soar to unimaginable heights.

Published on May 17, 2015 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.