Andrea Urton has faced many challenges in her life such as losing her mother, living in a violently abusive home and ending up on the streets — all before she graduated high school.
Now Urton is the CEO of HomeFirst, one of the South Bay’s leading nonprofits working to end homelessness. And she’s working toward a goal of putting herself out of business.
“It would be my dream if HomeFirst could focus on diversion and we could only do that if homelessness ended,” Urton, 50, told San Jose Spotlight. Diversion is the practice of providing services to someone who is on the verge of becoming homeless to keep them housed.
HomeFirst Santa Clara County provides temporary housing and shelter sites as well as social services to homeless individuals in the South Bay. This includes providing temporary housing to 250 people every day.
According to the 2017 point-in-time census 7,398 homeless individuals — men, women and children — are in Santa Clara County.
Urton took the mantle of CEO of the nonprofit in 2015 initially on an interim basis, before being asked to take the role permanently, bringing her life “full circle.” Urton had also experienced a period of time when she was homeless as a teenager in Bellflower, California.
When she was offered the role at HomeFirst Urton said she felt her life came “full circle” and that she could give back to the community in a meaningful way.
Urton is no stranger to hardship. Her work with some of the South Bay’s most vulnerable residents is shaped by her personal struggles.
Her mother died of terminal illness when she was 9 years old. And she lived with her father, who she says was a violent alcoholic, who made home feel unsafe for Urton.
“My home no longer became safe and so I was homeless,” Urton recalled. “I was lucky enough that there were four single moms — the mothers of my friends — so I did a lot of couch surfing.”
She said she moved back with her father, before he abandoned her and moved to a boat in the Long Beach Marina, selling the apartment they were living in from under her and forcing her to sleep in her car until she could find a room to rent.
And all of this happened right before she graduated high school.
She realized she could not improve her situation without a college degree and started taking classes in Los Angeles before graduating from San Jose State University with a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology. Then came the work in nonprofits serving impoverished communities like the one she grew up in.
Urton focused on “families that had been disrupted by Child Protective Services and trying to find a way to work with families that did not require ripping them apart.”
She worked to ensure the families had the services and support they needed “so kids didn’t have to leave their parents” and the parents could take care of their children in a healthy way.
This approach is something that Urton brought with her to HomeFirst. Under her leadership, the organization is looking to not only provide a place for people who are homeless but to surround them with services that can help them with their social, mental and permanent housing needs.
Mark Donnelly was on the HomeFirst board that hired Urton, and he recalls her passion and drive during the interview. What made her stand out from other candidates was “her enthusiasm, her honesty, her desire and her experience with mental health issues.”
“She expressed a great understanding of the homelessness issue,” Donnelly said. “She had been homeless, so she had the empathetic synapses necessary to do this job.”
Urton brought sweeping changes to a struggling organization when she came on, including adding new staff and ensuring the organization’s contracts with cities and the county were in compliance.
Summer-Lee Bettencourt came to HomeFirst through a transitional program, and now works as a case manager there supporting veterans and their families. She said Urton’s experience with homelessness puts her in the unique position of relating to those who come into the facilities.
“It goes down to the smallest things that people wouldn’t think are very important — like sanitary pads for women” and partitions between shelter beds so women feel safe, Bettencourt said.
Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home, has also served as the CEO of HomeFirst, and knows the challenges of using limited resources to serve a growing population in need.
“I feel like Andrea really works hard to be client-centered,” Loving said. “She’s had a lot of life experiences that have led her to understand the traumas that people voice.”
Loving said the South Bay is fortunate to have strong women leading organizations that are providing such important resources to the most vulnerable in the community.
“I think so many folks like Andrea are unsung heroes,” she said. “They don’t go around and talk about what they are doing.”