By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Dressed in a bright blue, figure-flattering dress with sensible heels and perfectly coiffed hair, it’s hard to believe that Nikki Johnson-Huston, a tax attorney and antipoverty advocate, was once homeless.
“We went from living in a hotel to a motel,” says Huston of her young years. “People let us sleep in their guest rooms, in their cars, and eventually we ended up on the streets.”
At the time, Huston lived in California with her brother and mother, who was addicted to drugs.
After a year of struggling and scraping by in shelters, Huston’s mother gave up custody. Huston went to live with her grandmother in Section 8 housing. Her brother was put into the foster care system. They never lived together as a family again.
“Honestly, I was a welfare baby,” she says, “and if it wasn’t for the social safety net, I wouldn’t be here.”
Huston says her grandmother instilled her with good character and an understanding that where you start out in life does not predict where you end up.
“She told me that poverty didn’t have to determine what my outcome was going to be,” says Huston, an avid reader who used books to escape her financial circumstances and dream of a better life. “It gave me hope.”
Huston, who claims she is “no genius,” got accepted to St. Joseph’s University. But the culture shock of being away from family led to low grades and academic probation by the end of her first semester. By the end of her first year she flunked out.
“That was a turning point for me,” she recalls.
Huston’s grandmother gave tough love, telling the 19-year-old freshman to find her own way. So she got a job as a nanny on the Main Line with a family of lawyers.
She eventually went back to St. Joe’s and earned her degree. Huston then attended law school at Temple University, earning an LLM law degree with an MBA in tax, making her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer a reality.
“The idea of being resilient has played a huge role,” says Huston. “Even if I cry the night before, I still get up the next day.”
Today, Huston blogs about poverty and childhood hunger (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nikki-johnsonhuston-esq/), and gives speeches to policy makers, nonprofits and others, appearing on television and radio programs to discuss how the social safety net of welfare and food stamps gave her the leg up she desperately needed.
“If you say children are a priority, why aren’t we investing in them?,” Huston wonders aloud in response to arguments that entitlement programs make people lazy. “I did need Section 8 for housing. I needed food stamps to eat. There is a minimum standard that people need to live, especially our children.”
Huston is also paying her fortune forward by empowering others. She speaks to children living in poverty, using her story as an example that anyone can be successful if they make the right choices.
“I’m not some type of anomaly, I just got the proper support,” says Huston. “There are millions of young people with my same struggles. My story shows that you can have struggles along the way, and if you learn from them it can make you better.”
Hear the extended interview with Nikki Johnson-Huston in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 22:02)…