Sparky Harlan, CEO, Bill Wilson Center, Santa Clara, CA
I support the Homeless Children and Youth Act because homeless children and youth are some of the most vulnerable and underserved populations. All too often, they are invisible or summarily dismissed in our communities. As CEO of Bill Wilson Center, a nonprofit agency serving homeless youth and families, I believe that it is my responsibility and the responsibility of our organization to be their voice in a world that is governed by and for adults.
Bill Wilson Center is a Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) agency located in Santa Clara, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. We provide direct services to more than 3,500 children, youth, young adults, and families in Santa Clara County through our various programs. We reach more than 34,000 indirectly through our Street Outreach and crisis line programs. Bill Wilson Center programs focus on housing, education, counseling, and advocacy.
Why is the Homeless Children and Youth Act needed? The federal government does not have a universally accepted definition of “homeless” for children, youth, and families. This inability to set the parameters of classifying those who are “officially homeless” creates a sense of false security that there is a decline in homeless children and families when other data sources show the contrasting results.
Santa Clara County’s 2015 Point-in-Time Homeless Census & Survey put the number of homeless children, youth, and families at 1,831 individuals. This official count, required by HUD, relies on a visual count of the homeless during two days in January. But according to a California Department of Education report published by kidsdata.org, there were 5,200 homeless students attending school in Santa Clara County last year. This is an unduplicated number of children and youth identified by public schools under the federal education definition of homelessness. The education number far exceeds the Point-in-Time count, which HUD chooses to use as its headcount.
The truest definition of homelessness rests with the people experiencing it. A family knows when they are homeless. Instead of celebrating the season, they are simply hoping to survive. They might be living in a homeless encampment, or in their car, or at a weekly motel, or in the garages of friends. These survival strategies are not meant to be long-term, nor do they mean the family is adequately housed. Parents often go to every length they can to keep a roof over their children’s heads. Just because they are temporarily successful with motels or “couch-surfing” does not mean they are not homeless; saying otherwise perpetuates a culture of promoting poverty among our nation’s ignored children.
At Bill Wilson Center, we know first-hand that young people experiencing homelessness are survivors, and for many, their survival strategies push them out of HUD’s definition of “homeless,” even when their lives and well-being are at stake. These troubling discrepancies in the counts of homeless families and youth can cause a misdirection or reduction of resources available for combatting homelessness. When lives are at stake, confusion surrounding a definition should not and cannot be accepted.
California, like our nation, has a long way to go in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable families and young people. Let’s start with the fundamentals by agreeing on a definition of “homelessness” and getting accurate counts as a result. It’s the best way to inform the public conversation, and to direct resources to those who need it most.