He was a homeless teenager, and nobody knew. Well, pretty much nobody.
Christopher L. Smith, who attended Pleasant Grove High School, hid his family’s secret behind good grades, participating in sports, and doing all the other “normal” things kids do in high school.
Only, his childhood was anything but normal. That’s why the fact that he eventually became a doctor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital is so miraculous.
Smith admits that so much of his life story is unbelievable. But he also credits his journey for making him who he is today.
An Unconventional Childhood
Life started out chaotic, and it wasn’t only because Smith was born into a family with 11 children. His parents, while loving in their own way, had major financial troubles. His father couldn’t seem to hold down a job for very long, even though he was well educated.
“He had a master’s degree,” Smith explains. “He was a dreamer. An inventor. He was always working on the next big thing.”
An eviction notice would appear, and the family would move. Then another eviction notice. Time after time, the family would be forced to uproot and find another place to live. Sometimes, Smith recalls, they’d have a roof over their heads but no electricity.
“We’d cook our food over a fire. There was a time we even heated water over a fire for a bath,” he recalls. They family had “communal” clothing, as Smith describes it, since they weren’t able to afford to have their own clothes.
At one rental home, a creek flowed out past the backyard. The day his tiny brother disappeared, his family’s worst fears were realized. He had toddled away and drowned.
“My mom shut down emotionally. Everything got worse,” Smith remembers. Plus, he had his own grief to deal with at a young age.
At one point, the family moved into a rental home that didn’t have enough room for the whole family to sleep in, so Smith and one of his brothers slept in a partially finished garage that was so cold, one night their fish tank burst. Without much money to their names, many times food was creative, meager, or nonexistent. Eventually, Smith’s world came crashing down on him emotionally. Why was life so bad? And why couldn’t it get better? Suicidal thoughts began. But, thankfully, they didn’t last long. He can’t explain it, other than an inner drive to be better.
“I grew up spending a lot of time at the library,” says Smith. “I read The Lord of the Rings and other books about overcoming odds. I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can.’”
While there were plenty of challenges growing up, Smith adds that his father always encouraged him to pursue his passions, especially sports. And for that, he was thankful.
Sports were where he felt part of a team and learned loyalty and the value of hard work. That was something he focused on off the field as well.
“School was my safe space. It was a place where there was some control,” Smith says. “I loved to learn. I absorbed information. My teachers believed in me.” Those were the emotionally comforting parts of school for him, but there were the physically comforting things as well. “School was warm, and there was food.”
Hard to believe, but even as a high schooler, young Smith looked forward to stepping through the front doors of school. He studied hard and got good grades. He was even in honors classes. Not to say there weren’t hiccups. He was a teenager, after all. At one point, he decided to let his AP History grade plummet. How his teacher handled it would stay with him forever.
“I started failing. She pulled me aside and asked what was going on,” he recalls. “I gave her excuses. She pushed up her glasses and said, ‘You are full of it. You’re one of the smartest kids. If you don’t graduate, someday you are going to regret it.’”
The way she pushed him, believed in him, stuck. He turned his grade around.
Smith got a job washing dishes and eventually cooking at a buffet, handing over much of his hard-earned money to his parents to help keep food on the table for his siblings. It was during those years that his family would be served an eviction notice that would be their hardest to bounce back from.
Homeless, Not Hopeless
Smith came home from work one day to a police officer and the landlord evicting his family. A moving truck was taking all of their belongings to a storage unit. He convinced the officer to let him grab a few things so he’d at least have something to wear to school.
The family had exhausted all their options. They had nowhere else to go. So they moved into a hotel room. All of them, except for Smith. Turns out, he was allergic to his sister’s newly acquired rescue cat. He had trouble breathing while the family slept, so he retreated to their old blue Chevy truck in the parking lot.
As it always happens in Utah, winter came and it was cold. Bitter cold. He remembers his hair freezing to the truck at one point. But Smith soldiered on. When he wasn’t at school or working, or participating in sports or student government, he was in the Chevy doing homework. Almost like the situation he was in pushed him to make something of himself.
Outside in that Chevy, he looked up at the stars.
“I thought, ‘Does God exist? Does he care?’ Then one night, I just felt like it was all going to be okay. I had this inner sense to keep trying. Even with so much failure, I had to keep going.”
Around the time he graduated—fourth in his class—Smith was hopeful that things would be better. But life was fraught with heartache. His father was arrested, and his mother became suicidal. Smith had no choice but to stay at work to provide for the family. His mother was sent to a facility for a time.
Smith was 17 and planning to go out on his own in the near future, but before he could take that step, a decision was made for him.
“I was left on my own at 17 without warning as my mother left the state without telling me, while my father was still in jail,” he says. “I was left with nothing except like 20 dollars and a couple shirts.”
He was devastated. But he had earned a full scholarship to the University of Utah and intended on using it to better his life. He moved in with his sister and slept on her couch while he attended college.
“Without my older sister, I would have been completely on the streets. She was my salvation,” Smith says.
But working and going to college wasn’t easy. Even though he was on a good path, his grades slipped just barely enough that his scholarship wasn’t going to be renewed the next year. What was he going to do now?
“I briefly gave up,” he says. “For a little while, I was partying. I quickly realized that was not the way I wanted to live.”
Smith saved his money for the next six months and put in his papers to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was called to the Anaheim California Spanish mission, where he would spend a lot of time in tough neighborhoods and trying to help gang members see a better way.
“The people were so amazing. My mission changed my perspective,” he says.
Rather than fall into a victim mentality and stay there for the rest of his life, Smith decided that he was the one who could change his future.
A New Lease
With some grants, loans, and lots of hard work, Smith studied at Idaho State University, where he met his wife. Those years were some of the happiest but also frustrating for him. In his memoir, Homeless to Hopkins, he describes many disappointing situations involving his parents, including them not showing up to his wedding, and a wheelbarrow race at their wedding reception (you’ll have to read the book). Thankfully, with the help of his new wife, Smith set boundaries. He still loved his family deeply, but he wanted a new lease on life.
Smith was accepted into the University of Utah’s medical school, where he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, despite never studying on Sundays.
“My classmates thought I was crazy. Medical school is intense,” he remembers. But he wanted a semblance of balance in his life, so he stuck to his guns.
During this time, he and his wife hoped to bring children into their family. Unfortunately, his wife had medical issues, but even after they seemed to clear up, they battled infertility for quite a while.
Then came a blessing in disguise. A family member’s child was taken away by the state, and Smith and his wife offered to care for her. It was challenging, but they grew to love her as their own. In time, they were able to adopt. The little girl later had a biological sister on the way, and through an up-and-down challenge, the couple was given custody of the infant and eventually adopted her as well. Eventually, they were also able to have a few more children of their own.
Meanwhile, Smith applied to quite a few residency programs, as most medical students do, to increase his chances of being matched with one. He interviewed everywhere. Some seemed like they might be possible.
However, the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine seemed to be too far out of the realm of possibilities. But this was Smith. The one who had been homeless and still rose above it. The one who had endured trauma in many different ways but chose to not let it define him.
With less than a one percent chance, Johns Hopkins accepted Smith into its program. He recalls how, at first, he felt so different from everyone else. They were all mostly single, with degrees from prestigious universities. And here was Smith from Utah, married, with a few kids.
He soon felt at home there, and the other med students became some of his best friends. Each rotation he put in his all. Hours upon hours learning everything he could. Just like in high school, back in that Chevy under the stars.
After his residency, Smith became a radiologist and also stayed on and taught at Johns Hopkins for a while, doing what he had always dreamed of doing—helping people. That is, helping people become well and helping people to learn.
And while he has never let homelessness define his adult life, it’s hard to forget. Which is why he wrote his memoir and why he tries to inspire others with his story.
Smith speaks at youth conferences and fundraisers for the homeless, and even the Mayor’s Ball in Palm Beach County, Fla.
“I want people to know they can do something with their lives,” he says. “Like Frodo, who defeated against incredible odds, or Abraham Lincoln, who kept going despite failure. we can overcome adversity. No matter if it’s homelessness or anything that happens to us, you can get through it.”
To book Smith to speak at your school, organization, or group about overcoming adversity and/or homelessness, email HomelessToHopkins@gmail.com.
Unfortunately, homelessness is largely a hidden problem. Most people recognize “homeless” as those who they see living on the street. But there are many more out there. Students at school, like Smith was once upon a time.
“Thirty percent of homeless are children and families,” Smith says. “It’s widespread.”
Homeless to Hopkins is also available in a children’s version, specifically written to help children struggling in poverty, and it would be a great resource for all schools to have available.
One thing Smith wished he would have done and that he urges others to do seems very simple, yet it can be the hardest thing in the world: “Ask for help. When we are ashamed, we feel powerless and have no control.”
By asking for help, and never giving up, those little choices along the way can add up. They definitely did for Smith.
“Everything that is beautiful has been broken,” he says. “We all have scars. But we can be repaired beautifully.”
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