A mini fridge, blackout curtains and a microwave were just a few of the items on Sparky Harlan’s holiday shopping list—but they weren’t gifts for friends or family members.
Rather, the Bill Wilson Center CEO needed them to prepare a spare room in her house for college students with no place else to go.
Just a week before Christmas, Harlan’s first tenant, a San Jose State computer science major named Abdul, moved in as part of a broader initiative by the Bill Wilson Center, Airbnb and local colleges to offer free lodging to homeless students.
Armed with a $250,000 state grant, the Bill Wilson Center will cover the cost and book rooms for homeless college students on the short-term rentals website.
But with a goal of housing 100 homeless students in 100 days, Harlan—who is opening her home free of charge and personally receiving none of the grant money for it—said she felt the need to step up and lead by example. “If I want other people to put up their spare bedrooms to help homeless college students, I should do that also,” she said.
Housing First, hugs second. Invited Abdul into my house today through @Airbnb collaboration to house homeless college students. I am so grateful to be able to share my home with him. #endyouthhomelessness. @BillWilsonCtr
— Sparky Harlan (@SparkyHarlan) December 20, 2019
Santa Clara County’s homeless population has reached staggering numbers in the last few years. A 2019 point-in-time census found 9,706 homeless residents on the county’s streets in January—an increase of more than 20 percent since the same time in 2017.
As for college students, a recent survey found that 22 percent of homeless respondents in San Jose between ages 18 and 25 were enrolled in college. But the time between quarters or semesters leaves students particularly vulnerable, as libraries have shortened hours and many other school facilities close.
“Over the winter break [we’re] making sure students don’t end up homeless during this four-week period when classes end and begin again,” Harlan said.
In Abdul’s case, his roommate recently graduated, leaving him in a last-minute bind to find a place to stay. The quick turnover of apartments for college students is something that Harlan said is becoming increasingly common.
“They sleep in their cars or they start trying to couch surf,” she explained. “There’s just a lot of this very on-the-edge student population out there. I think that’s why you have some of the colleges saying, ‘We don’t see the homelessness you’re talking about,’ because it’s not how you normally define a homeless population.”
Since the Bill Wilson Center kicked off its 100-day challenge on Nov. 4, Catherine Voss Plaxton—SJSU’s interim associate vice president of student services—said the collaboration has served 37 students.
“With the capacity we have built through partnerships like the 100-day challenge, we have more tools to address student housing needs beyond on-campus housing,” she said.
Anecdotally, that seems to be the case.
Ashely Crosdale, vice president of San Jose State University’s Student Homeless Alliance, said they’ve had fewer homeless students come to them in search of housing since the program’s launch. “We always open our doors,” she said. “As far as right now, no one has really [asked about winter housing]. I think that really has to do with the proactiveness of the 100-day challenge.”
As for welcoming Abdul into her home, Harlan said the experience has been rewarding yet heartbreaking. In adding the finishing touches to the suite, she stashed some snacks for her guest to enjoy during his stay—just as she would if he were her own child.
When Abdul saw the morsels, Harlan said he remarked that it was enough food to hold him over for two days. “There’s no way that was enough food to feed me for two days,” she said. “[But] he’s grateful for it.”