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Liz Murray shares her tale of life from homeless to Harvard

Liz Murray is the "homeless to Harvard" author/motivational speaker/Oprah guest woman. She is speaking at the Vancouver Club as part of the Bon Mot book club on Monday night.

Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Liz Murray, in a bright red dress and shiny black pumps, is sitting on a leather chair by a crackling fire, describing a life of abject poverty, homelessness and drug use (her parents', not hers). She's at the Vancouver Club, the kind of place that screams old money with its terrazzo lobby, billiard tables and swish private restaurant. On West Hastings Street in the heart of Vancouver's business district, it's a few blocks - and a world - away from East Hastings and Main, ground zero for Vancouver's homelessness and drug addiction problem.

While Ms. Murray warms by the fire before speaking at a $500-a-ticket Bon Mot Book Club event, down the street, addicts are toughing out a weather warning-grade windstorm.

"I feel like my life has been a series of miracles," she says. "I was in every sense a lost cause."

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Ms. Murray, 30, has travelled a long way from lost-cause status. A Harvard graduate as of last year and recent author - her memoir, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and my Journey from Homeless to Harvard, was published in September - she is taking advantage of her return to the spotlight to passionately advocate for impoverished children. She is thoughtful, funny and employs a down-to-earth, spontaneous approach that dazzles audiences - some members of whom will be in tears later that night.

Ms. Murray was born in the Bronx in 1980 to a cocaine-addicted, alcoholic, schizophrenic mother. Her father, also an addict with mental health issues, picked through garbage in Manhattan while her mother turned tricks at the local bar. Both did heroin, as well, shooting up in plain view of their daughters.

The first-of-the-month welfare cheques would buy Happy Meals for her and her older sister, and drugs for her parents, but the money would be gone after a week or so, and the girls would be so hungry they would sometimes resort to eating ice cubes, toothpaste and Chapstick. Her hair was so lice-ridden, the bugs literally fell from her head, landing on one memorable occasion on the desk next to hers at school. Ms. Murray rarely showed up for class.

At 15, she left home, sleeping - often on the sly - in friends' apartments, on the subway or street, or in a motel, paid for by her abusive boyfriend.

It wasn't until she lost her mother to complications from HIV/AIDS that she was jolted out of that lifestyle. "My mother gave me the gift of clarity. Unfortunately, she died and that's what it took for me to wake up, but I realized my mortality at 16."

Her father, who wound up in a shelter, contracted HIV as well, and died in 2006. But he lived long enough to see Liz turn her life around: She made it into an alternative high school and, still homeless, graduated with spectacular marks. She beat out thousands of applicants to win a $12,000 (U.S.) New York Times scholarship and got into Harvard.

"I've learned in my life that you really don't know what's possible until you're already doing it," she says, when asked about these accomplishments. "You blaze the trail. And sometimes that involves doing something that scares the hell out of you."

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Suddenly she was in demand. The company FranklinCovey, which she'd never heard of, invited her to Utah to tell her story. She arrived to discover she was on the same bill as Mikhail Gorbachev. She also learned that Covey was Stephen Covey - whose book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, she had once shoplifted.

"I know it seems like self-help cheesy, but I didn't get the best advice from adults growing up, so when I discovered ... the self-help section I was, like, wait there are all these people who will just give you advice? So I stole the books and I read them. And then I ended up at the Stephen Covey [event]and I'm like: 'Oh you're the guy who wrote that book. I owe you 20 bucks, man.'"

Soon after, Lifetime turned her story into a 2004 movie, she was profiled by 20/20 and she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. (She'll be back with Oprah on Nov. 26.)

She's now applying to graduate school (she wants to study clinical psychology). She is a professional speaker, and works with a couple of charitable organizations, including Blessings in a Backpack, which sends impoverished kids home from school on Fridays with backpacks full of food to get them through the weekend, when they won't have a hot school lunch.

Ms. Murray, who is dating her high-school sweetheart, hopes to have children and later adopt one or two teenagers out of foster care. "If I had a magic wand, I would live in a building in New York, big enough so my friends, my family could all have apartments in it. We'd raise our kids in the same space and have backyard barbecues and get old and fat together."

Among the questions that will be posed that evening at the Vancouver Club is the inevitable query: What can I do to help? I ask her the same thing. Fresh in my mind is the story of her mother trying to trade her sister's winter coat for a bit of coke. (The dealer, moral soul that he was, refused.) So should one worry that a donation on the street will go toward drugs? Or alcohol?

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"I don't think it's any of my business," says Ms. Murray. "If I want to be a loving, generous, giving person, I'm not going to test the waters. I'm simply going to be a loving, generous, giving person."

She recalls giving $12 to a homeless man outside her hotel earlier that afternoon. "I don't know if that guy is going to go shoot heroin," she says. "But far be it for me to decide my commitment as a person, as a human being in this world, based on someone else's behaviour.

"If I can get him a hamburger, have I done something criminal? Is the world worse off? I don't think so. It's an act of kindness. I would want the same done for me. It has been done for me."

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