Leaders Should Learn About the Lives, Challenges of the Homeless

It’s easy for the general public to lump all homeless people together. It’s easy to say that it must be the homeless individual’s own choice to be homeless when riches and opportunities abound in Silicon Valley. It’s easy to point the finger at “quick fix solutions” that supposedly should get everyone off the streets.

What’s hard is to face the true realities of the multi-faceted causes of homelessness. What’s hard is taking a stand for youth who are thrown into homelessness at no fault of their own. What’s hard is taking the time to talk with them about their lives and their hopes and their dreams.

Last week, Congressman Mike Honda accepted my invitation to stop by Bill Wilson Center’s TAY Inn to share a meal with its residents and spend the evening talking about their lives and challenges.

This was not a press event, just an opportunity accepted by Honda to learn firsthand from homeless youth living in temporary housing.

"A congressman coming out and doing this shows us that he is interested in homeless youth," said one of Bill Wilson Center’s TAY Inn residents. "It motivates me that I can be like him someday.”

The congressman spent three hours listening to the young people’s life stories and sharing his own humble background.

The TAY Inn provides homeless transition age youth (18–25) with temporary housing and supportive services in a safe, voluntary, and welcoming 24-hour environment. Youth can stay in the program for up to 90 days. During this time, the youth work with Peer Partners to develop and work on their transition plan which includes moving to more secure housing, finding employment, and exploring vocational and educational services. During their stay, they learn independent living skills and receive mental health and substance abuse treatment. Many of these young people are former foster youth.

We need more politicians and business leaders to take time to stop and really listen to what our society has created … approximately 1.6 million children who will experience homelessness over the course of a year. In fact, in any given day, researchers estimate that more than 200,000 children have no place to live

Honda’s visit follows up on a firsthand experience that Rep. Jackie Speier had this past February when she spent a Friday night in a Redwood City homeless shelter.

“I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. Every member of Congress should be required to do what I did,” Speier told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. “It would help us appreciate who we are talking about. We rattle off numbers, but it doesn’t speak about the people themselves.”

In addition to Speier and Honda, other lawmakers making an effort to get a firsthand look at homelessness during the past year include Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) who spent a day shadowing a homeless Connecticut man and California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, who spent a night in a homeless shelter.

New York’s Covenant House in Times Square has hosted a CEO Solidarity Sleepout that features business leaders donating money for the opportunity to experience a night in the life of a homeless person. A few years back, the general manager of the New York Yankees, Brian Cashman, found himself in a sleeping bag on a sidewalk outside a crisis shelter on West 41st Street on a chilly November night. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group is also taking on the issue of ending homelessness here at home.

While the nation has seen some decrease in the number of people who are homeless, including a reduction in the number of homeless veterans and chronic homeless, San Jose has not been as lucky. After the January 2013 point in time count there was an increase of 18 percent in the overall homeless population in the past two years. With housing costs skyrocketing, decreasing homelessness will be difficult.

We will only solve the issue of homelessness if we work together. We need both prevention as well as intervention programs. Foster youth need to be supported after they age out of the system. Housing and support services need to target not only the chronic homeless, but also newly homeless families and youth. Join me and our business and government leaders in tackling the hard issue of ending homelessness in Silicon Valley.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.


  1. Sparky… you’re not going to solve mental illness or addiction- regardless of how much money the State, County or San Jose gives to your “non-profit”. While I admire the humanity of what you’re trying to accomplish, the stark reality is that very few kids/adults who are in these situations are helped long term. Temporarily, it feels good to shower them with public money and resources but until they make the choice to improve, you’re wasting money. You know as well as I do that the failures drub the successes. Overwhelmingly, the “victims” prefer to be in the public assistance system- and really, life isn’t too bad here in the Bay Area when you tally up all the handouts available. Is this recent stumping for aid to “less fortunate” related to the increase of money now coming in to Silicon Valley government?

      • Malarkey. People with addiction can recognize the illness/affliction just like those around can. Those that refuse can live on the street or in jail.

        Those with “severe” mental illness, as you reframed my comment, can reside in a mental institution. The millions of others who have mental illness can recognize it and adapt- like the millions already functioning well in society with mental illness.

          • Are you including costs of victimization in your calculations? How much is it worth to you, for instance- to not have your home burglarized? Remember this conversation, and your position, when the identity of you or a loved one is compromised. At the rate crime related to drugs is in increasing in San Jose (vehicle theft, burglary, financial fraud, etc.) it’s just a matter of time. Prop 36 continues to fail.

    • This is a statement that is unfounded in factual basis. Many youth find themselves in situations that force them to leave home. To lump all homeless in one box and make a statement that they want to be on the streets is lacking in complete compassion and understanding of the situation. Many youth and adults have their lives completely turned around because someone reached out to them. It is not about “feeling good” to “shower the homeless with money.” I have worked in the Tenderloin providing direct services to homeless victims suffering with addictions, HIV, Hep C and mental illness/dual diagnosis. These people are not there by choice, Jate Naeger. Yes, they do have a choice but without counseling, a place to shower, food and shelter they lose hope. Hope is a thread in the most dire of circumstances. It is not a waste of money to be able to offer someone hope that they can make a choice on their own. Often the homeless have lost hope due to circumstances. I would like to invite you to try living on the street for a few days and walk in their shoes. I suspect you would lose hope yourself and would be grateful for some help out of the situation.

  2. It’s funny how the more tax dollars we spend on programs to solve perceived societal problems the worse these problems become. But the “non-profit”eers, like Sparky here, never seem to be hurting for our tax dollars. All these do-gooder efforts to address trumped up crises, in this case homelessness, never seem to result in anything other than more of the same.
    The whole scenario is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise (or was it Voyager?) was being bombarded by energy pulses from a distant object. Feeling that they were under attack and that they had to “do something”, the crew fired the ship’s phasers and photon torpedoes at the object. But the more energy they directed at the perceived boogeyman, the more devastating was the return fire. It wasn’t until Data or Seven of Nine I forget who, with an inspired bit of outside the box thinking, realized that all the energy and resources the ship was using were being reflected back at them and actually turned out to be the source of the problem. Through their efforts, the “do-gooders” aboard the spaceship were not only justifying their important positions of authority and power, they were actually feeding the “problem” and making it worse. Once they came to their senses and stopped fighting it, the “problem” went away.

    The local Democrat power elite with Sparky Harlan as it’s spokesperson in this case, want us to believe that the fundamental forces of economics and of human behavior will magically be suspended if we will only “talk to a homeless person”. Or a foster youth.
    But they are full of it.
    You want to create an even bigger homeless problem here in San Jose? Then by all means, go ahead and build cozy little cottages for them. You want more people in San Jose who whine that they can’t afford to live here? Then build more “affordable housing”. Build it and they will come. And the “problem” will grow.

  3. Jate–nice straw man! BWC isn’t out to “solve” mental illness or addiction. Do your research. http://www.billwilsoncenter.org/about/index.html And as for the Randroid, it’s all about outcomes, not magical excuses for sociopathy. Again, do your research. And, no, so sorry–watching Star Trek isn’t going to cut it here. In fact, no fiction is going to be useful to you here–especially not that stultifying brick of a book whence your namesake appears. http://www.billwilsoncenter.org/about/outcomes.html

  4. Great article. Thank you, Sparky, for keeping these kids in the spotlight. I’ve worked with foster kids who’ve aged out & ended up with you at Bill Wilson and they were heard, cared for, and empowered to keep moving forward. Ignore your haters. Their ignorance is just fear with a touch of self-hate… While they ignore reality, we’ll keep doing the work to get our kids where they’re going…

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