From Homeless to Harvard: Overcoming Adversity, Moving toward Possibility

Liz Murray kicked off Thursday’s sessions at the Governor’s Housing Conference with her empowering story of overcoming a challenging childhood,  living with drug-addicted parents and years of homelessness as a teenager in New York City, and eventually changing her perspective and  graduating from Harvard University.
Ms. Murray began her story by walking conference attendees through some of the painful parts of her childhood life in the Bronx, when she and her sister frequently had to deal with finding food on their own. More She also related watching their parents spend most of their welfare check on getting high rather than living necessities, and watching the apartment that they lived in fall into disarray as their parents condition worsened. In her teenage years her parents lost the apartment where she grew up and she eventually took to sleeping on her friend’s couches, riding the subway overnight and living on the streets.


At that time, her mind was focused on what she didn’t have and the gaping divide between her and those that did have–the rest of society that she felt was on the other side of a brick wall she couldn’t break through, due in part to the lack of a stable safe home. Ms. Murray told the audience that looking back at her parent’s example she believed that survival was the ultimate goal of her life.


However, upon seeing her mother’s unceremonious funeral after a battle with AIDS, her mentality changed. She became determined to look at the things she did have in life and act out on all of her nagging inner questions of “What if?” She then answered the question of “What if I did go back to school and try as hard as I can there?” and finished high school in just two years while camping out in New York City parks and subway stations.


From there, she was able to secure a grant from the New York Times to attend and graduate from Harvard University with a degree in psychology in 2009. The inspiring session ended a standing ovation from attendees, after Mrs. Murray urged audience members to call someone they loved during the conference and remind them of their love, and to not wait to act out on their own personal “What if’s?”.