Keeping Families Together to Prevent Youth Homelessness

Sparky Harlan is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.


It takes great leaders to tackle a huge issue like ending homelessness. I am proud to be working with the White House and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) and to be recognized as a Champion of Change for working to end youth and family homelessness. 

In 2010, when I first heard USICH announce the Opening Doors plan, which included ending youth and family homelessness by 2020, I was a bit skeptical. After all, I had been working with runaways and homeless street youth in the San Francisco/San Jose area for over 40 years. How was the country going to end youth and family homelessness during an economic downturn, when families were losing their homes to foreclosures and unemployment was climbing?

Each year the Bill Wilson Center serves over 10,000 individuals in Silicon Valley, providing counseling, housing, education, and advocacy. It is estimated that on any given night there are 1,500 homeless youth in San Jose either on the streets, couch surfing, or trading sex for a place to stay. We provide a continuum of services for youth and young families that includes street outreach and a drop-in center for homeless youth, emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent and supportive housing. Our vision is to prevent poverty by helping youth make the connections they need to be self-sufficient adults. Our primary goal is to keep families together and teach them the skills they need to prevent future crises. 

Locally, I have started a campaign along with other community leaders in order to develop a plan on how we are going to end youth and family homelessness by 2020. We have chosen to combine youth and families because of our strong belief that youth and family members have a better chance of success if they remain together. Our research shows that even older homeless youth are more likely to make the successful transition out of homelessness with the support of their family. When their family is also homeless, then the primary work shifts to keeping the family housed or rapidly re-housing them.

After listening to USICH’s June 2012 webcast focusing on strategies to end youth homelessness, I was energized.  USICH realizes that we need more data to determine how many youth are homeless and that there are subsets of youth who are more at-risk of becoming homeless than others. The Bill Wilson Center has taken the lead in San Jose to conduct Point-In-Time (PIT) counts of homeless youth and we will be part of a panel presentation on our experience at the upcoming National Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Washington, D.C. At the same time, we are working to ensure our services reflect the best practices available to serve homeless youth.

Taking the lead on ending youth and family homelessness in Santa Clara County is not an easy undertaking. I know a lot about youth homelessness, but I’m still learning about the broader issue of family homelessness. My hope is that we can work collectively with the experts operating local domestic violence shelters and nonprofit family shelters, as well as with government and corporate leaders and school district personnel to develop one comprehensive plan to end youth and family homelessness in Santa Clara County. Usually I like to storm ahead and quickly tackle a problem. For this effort I am starting slowly, using social media so the best and brightest can be a part of the planning process. I believe that through collaboration, we can end youth and family homelessness by 2020.

Sparky Harlan is CEO of the Bill Wilson Center.

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