Couch Surfing at Bill Wilson Center's 2017 Building Dreams Luncheon
Story and photos by Diane Andrews

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Couch Surfing at Bill Wilson Center's 2017 Building Dreams Luncheon

Couch surfing sounds like a fun sleepover for teens. The reality is that teens and young adults surf from one friend's couch to another because they don't have a home to go to. They are just one couch away from sleeping on the streets and couch surfing doesn't count as having a home. Neither does sleeping in a car or sleeping in a motel.

At Bill Wilson Center's (BWC) 2017 Building Dreams Luncheon at the Santa Clara Convention Center on May 3, CEO Sparky Harlan reported some jaw-dropping statistics.

In Santa Clara County, according to "Count Me," a study-in-progress launched in 2016 by the nonprofit organization, 12,000 to 15,000 high school students couch surf every night. They are part of the count of 110,000 homeless high school students in the county. The percentage of homeless college students is even higher–45 percent to 55 percent of enrollees. The main reasons for youth homelessness are family conflicts and because their families asked them to leave.

"And if you're on the street, you're going to be arrested," said Harlan, citing a pop-up survey of 200 kids on the streets. Fifty percent said they had been arrested and 25 percent had been shot at.

"The problem is larger scale than people would think. This can be our co-worker, our kids' classmates, or people we see regularly. You can't tell by looking who is homeless," said BWC board member Mark Weiner. "A significant percentage of folks who are homeless are not folks who would have been homeless several years ago. On-going inflation and the rising cost of living in the Valley are contributing factors."

Couch by couch, the BWC is working to end youth and family homelessness in Santa Clara County through the counseling and support programs it provides. BWC operates the only runaway and homeless youth shelter in the county. It has transitional housing programs for homeless and emancipated foster youth.

Luncheon speaker Shinay Trotter, originally from Fresno, was a high school couch surfer who achieved her dream of having a stable home with help from BWC.

"I was homeless but not helpless," Trotter said. "With the help of the Bill Wilson Center, I was given a chance to learn and build a stable life for myself. Because of you, I'm no longer homeless. I have a job and apartment and attend community college in hope of becoming the first member of my family with a college degree."

Weiner explained his decision to become a BWC board member.

"It's a proven, long-time, successful organization. It is well run," said Weiner, who has two children in college. "It's a wonderful cause."

Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church sponsored two tables at the fund-raising luncheon, which was attended by 400 supporters and raised $174,000.

"We're pleased to support Bill Wilson Center and the vital work they do for the youth of Santa Clara County," said Gary Ruschke, chair of the church's mission department. "Serving the most vulnerable members of our community is at the heart of the gospel and we are happy to join them in this work."

As well as contributing funds to BWC, Harlan shared that adults can help by engaging in conversation with at-risk teens they have contact with.

"Teens really want adults to engage them in conversation. Acknowledge that they are homeless and ask them what's going on," said Harlan. "Call the BWC for supportive counseling. We have a good track record, successfully helping 87 percent of those who contact us."

Bill Wilson Center, 3490 The Alameda, was founded in Santa Clara in 1973. For information, visit www.billwilsoncenter.org or call (408) 243-0222. The crisis hotline is (408) 650-6125.