Once homeless Nanny now attorney

Once homeless, city attorney tells her story to inspire others

By CHRISTINE OLLEY

Philadelphia Daily News

olleyc@phillynews.com 215-854-5184

WHENEVER Roberta West walked past the couch outside the dean’s office at Temple University’s Law School, she was impressed by the sight of a focused young woman who always had her nose in her books. “She was so young, so wide-eyed, so intense about studying and getting her work done, and that was very impressive to me,” West, an administrator at Temple’s Law School, said of Nikki Johnson-Huston. “No one could have possibly known she struggled through a past like she did.”
Before getting three degrees in four years, becoming a lawyer for the city, getting married and settling into the comfortable middle-class life she has now, Johnson-Huston was homeless as a 9 year old with a mother who abused alcohol and couldn’t care for her. Now, the 36-year-old is giving back, making it her mission to tell the homeless about the opportunities available to them and provide the support needed to get back on track.
“The thing about Nikki is that she’s just an amazing combination of professionalism and her commitment to giving back is really incredible,” said Lauren Millner, who works with Project H.O.M.E. “In addition to that, she’s so compassionate.”
Family’s hard struggle
When Johnson-Huston was a toddler growing up in Detroit, her grandmother was injured in a car crash, the first in a series of tragic events that Johnson-Huston believes prompted their descent into homelessness. “I have the feeling that my family was never really wealthy, but my grandmother sort of always worked, and the accident put her in a position where she couldn’t work,” she said.
Four years later, after two of her uncles had been killed in Detroit, Johnson-Huston’s grandmother used the money she received in a small settlement from the crash to move the family to California. “I think she was afraid of what would happen to everyone else if she didn’t,” Johnson-Huston said.
Unfortunately, with her mother battling alcoholism, it didn’t take long before their life started to tumble in San Diego. The family began living in hotels, on the streets, and then at a Salvation Army shelter. They ate meals at a rescue mission. “It was scary and fearful and confusing,” Johnson-Huston said. “You don’t know a lot, but you know that it’s probably not how things are supposed to be.”
When she was about 10, Johnson-Huston’s mother sent her to live with her grandmother a few hours away in Santa Barbara, Calif., while her brother, Michael, went into foster care. “I think I have survivor guilt, sort of,” Johnson-Huston said. “We started out together, and the question most people have is why did I get the opportunity to go to my grandmother? That really seemed to be sort of the turning point in our lives.
“I think he felt that had made my life a charmed life but it didn’t. It was a better situation than he was in but not a charmed life.” After living with HIV and struggling with drug addiction for many years, Michael hanged himself this year. As his only living relative, Johnson-Huston traveled to California to take him off life-support. “I thought we always had enough time to fix our relationship and turn things around,” Johnson-Huston said, “and we literally just ran out of time.”
Refocusing her life
Living with her grandmother gave Johnson-Huston the stability she needed, and by 18 she thought she was ready for college. She chose to travel across the country to Saint Joseph’s University, in part because she wanted a Catholic education and also because it gave her the best financial-aid package. But after a year of too much partying – and not enough studying – she flunked out. “I wasn’t quite ready for it,” Johnson-Huston said of college. “The kids were a lot different than the ones I grew up around; they had maids in their houses, cars and credit cards.”
A job as a live-in nanny for a couple on the Main Line helped her get her life on track, and she earned the money needed to go back to school. Johnson-Huston served as a nanny for Deborah Leavy and Don Bersoff’s then-3-year-old son, Ben, only for a year, but she developed a special bond with the family that has stretched over 15 years. “She was just a remarkable person,” said Leavy, a former member of the Daily News editorial board. Leavy remembered a time when she was immobilized with vertigo while her husband was away on business.
With her then-boyfriend waiting in the car and their bags packed for a planned weekend getaway, Johnson-Huston stayed behind to take care of Ben. “She could have said, ‘Gee, sorry,’ ” Leavy said. “What a wonderful, giving person. You couldn’t get that from just anybody.”
Paying it forward
Johnson-Huston used the money she made from the nanny job to re-enroll at Saint Joseph’s and finish her schooling. After getting two law degrees and her MBA, she eventually went to work for the city and is now an attorney representing the city in business-tax disputes. Johnson-Huston is also focused on charitable efforts to help women and children. She stresses the importance of education. “It makes me feel really good, like my life has come full circle,” Johnson-Huston said. “It’s a little bittersweet because I look at [these] women and children being able to stay together and that’s not something we got to do as a family.
“I’m happy for them, but, at the same time, sad we didn’t have that opportunity.” Johnson-Huston – named one of the 10 under 40 to watch for 2010 by the Philadelphia Tribune – has worked on various projects for Project H.O.M.E. She also has shared her story at places like Rowan House, a residence for homeless families in North Philadelphia. She hopes that talking about her life will help encourage others to follow their dreams and achieve their goals. “I had the dream of being a lawyer since I was a little girl and it was a long and difficult process with failure along the way, but I got to live my dream,” she said. “It only takes one person to believe in you.”