Formerly unhoused, Kaleef Starks shares her story of being her authentic self

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Friday, June 14, 2024
Formerly unhoused student finds a way to put herself through college
Kaleef Starks faced numerous obstacles on her way to college, but she persevered and hopes to be a journalist someday.

LOS ANGELES -- "No one really believed in me in my home life at all. Education to me was sort of an escape honestly," said Kaleef Starks, a USC Annenberg Journalism M.S. Student.

Starks is a journalist, podcaster and a trans woman who shared her experience with ABC in "Our America: Who I'm Meant To Be."

"Being a black trans woman, being someone who experienced homelessness. I've been through a lot. My journey was something that it required a lot of patience," she said.

Starks says she's always been attracted to radio and television. She grew up in Fresno, California, watching Barbara Walters and Oprah.

"A person like me is not typically accepted, any one of the LGBTQ communities, but especially a trans person. So, growing up, it was really hard. I went through a lot of bullying from people at school and in my home life as well," she shared.

"My parents were not accepting of me. And at 14, my father put me out in 2007, had nowhere to go. I was couch hopping with various family members. And they all had an issue with my identity literally everywhere I went. They were just like, you can't stay here. We don't we don't accept who you are."

"I decided to come (to Los Angeles) with my mom and my mom was homeless. She was living in a garage, living out of her car. She really didn't have much. It was a really toxic environment. I ran away several times. For me it was sort of like, oh, you know, I'm going to school. What more do you want? My mom really had a tough time finding employment. You know, which is why you know, she was living in the garage at first and it wound up living in her car. Then we moved on to a shelter because it was so hard financially."

Angela M. Sanchez, a friend, said she met Starks when they were both experiencing homelessness in a family shelter.

"When we were both in the shelter Kaleef was definitely that spark of optimism, that sense of joy, that liveliness that even though we're both homeless with our families, there was something that I looked forward to about having to have this experience with her. For both of us, we were each other's support buddy while we were there," she said.

Sanchez and Starks both attended UCLA and continued to stay in touch.

"I didn't transition early ... I didn't have the ability to do that. But I already knew that I was a woman or a girl or whatever. I just didn't have the resources or the support to do that. It wasn't until I saw Isis King on 'America's Next Top Model,'" she said. "I didn't know that you could actually medically transition. I started around 18 as far as medically, but socially, I was already like, literally, dressing how I wanted to dress."

After graduating from UCLA with a degree in gender studies and LGBTQ studies, Starks worked at the Covenant House California, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and then at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

"Fun fact, I actually started an application to Annenberg in high school, but I chickened out because I didn't believe in myself, I just did not believe that I would get in. I did not think that I would be here. I applied and got accepted, and got offered the full ride scholarship with Wallace Annenberg, which was an honor to have, I'm the fourth person in America to have that. And you know, without that, I wouldn't be here for sure," she said.

Heather John Fogarty, one of Starks' former professors, said she immediately stood out as a leader.

"My hope for Kaleef is that she has the opportunity to write her own story," Fogarty said.

"I took advantage of the resources and I just use them to the best of my ability. So that's why you know, we have 'The Stark Effect,'" Starks said, referring to her podcast.

"I would like to be a part of that wave where you have a trans female journalist who's also an African American person where you know who they are, but it doesn't affect their careers."

Reflecting on her journey, Starks added: "I think the younger me is so proud. Although it's really hard and it's tough, the younger me and even the mature me now ... I'm really proud."