Getting Kids off the Couch before They Hit the Streets

Story and photo by Diane Andrews
Getting Kids off the Couch before They Hit the Streets

The release of the Sept. 2 findings of Bill Wilson Center’s two-year survey of homeless youth shocked Silicon Valley with its high count of homeless high school and community college students in Santa Clara County.

“Count Me! Hidden in Plain Sight: Documenting Homeless Youth Populations” reported 13,250 high-school students as homeless and 17,637—44 percent—of community college students ages 18–25. These numbers are based on surveys administered to students at six county high schools and two (of eight) community colleges from winter 2016 through spring 2017. No school in the Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) was surveyed.

The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 24, 2017, identified an additional 2,530 unaccompanied homeless youth and young adults.

What counts as homeless? Not just sleeping on the streets. Sleeping in a car, an abandoned building or motel counts as homeless. Sleeping on a borrowed couch in the home of a friend, relative or casual acquaintance—sometimes in exchange for sex—counts as homeless. Called “couch surfing,” it is just one couch away from living on the streets, where the youth are often victimized.

“The problem is larger than we realized,” said Sparky Harlan, CEO of Bill Wilson Center (BWC) in Santa Clara. The nonprofit organization, established in 1973, provides Santa Clara County at-risk youth and family members with counseling, housing, education and advocacy.

“This isn’t just about revealing numbers. It’s about trying to start a movement and an effort to get people to talk to couch surfers, to have conversations. We are really talking about an on-going campaign to reach out to young people sleeping on couches,” said Harlan. She pointed out that youth leaving foster care, youth in the criminal justice system, parenting youth and LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk of becoming homeless.

“If we can reach youth early and provide them with needed services, we can stop this spiral into a dangerous life on the streets and chronic homelessness,” continued Harlan. “We want to speak with these couch surfers so we can provide them with help. Once you hit the street, it’s really not safe, and we want to prevent it.”

A first step in starting a conversation with a homeless youth would be to visit  www.acouchisnotahome.org. The BWC site has a link to the “Count Me” report and suggestions for adults and peers on how to have a conversation with a couch surfer, perhaps a teenager already on a couch in your home.

“Supporting our homeless and foster youth is a priority for Santa Clara Unified. At the moment, we know about 13 foster youth and 123 homeless students enrolled in our schools. Understandably, living in such circumstances distracts students and their families from helping each child reach their highest potential,” wrote SCUSD public information officer Jennifer Dericco in an October email.

“To provide more equity to these students by removing some of the barriers to their success, we provide a number of services and support to them. We have two homeless liaisons who provide direct support to homeless families in linking them to area services such as housing, work, and food,” said Dericco.

In the 2016-2017 school year, SCUSD opened a Parent Resource Center on the Educational Options campus, 1840 Benton St., Building C. Phone: (408) 423-3541. (A website is under construction.)

The center provides classes for adults, workshops, translators, service referrals, supplies and food. Health and wellness services and staff are available to provide mental and emotional support, including counseling from licensed professionals.

For 24/7 help for couch surfers in Santa Clara County, contact the Bill Wilson Center Crisis Line: 1-408-850-6125. Call the CA Youth Crisis Line at 1-800-843-5200. BWC is located at 3490 The Alameda.