Bill Wilson Center Walk to Prevent Youth Homelessness

Story and photos by Diane Andrews

November is National Homeless and Runaway Prevention Month. And the message was loud and clear as about 75-100 people gathered at San Jose City Hall Plaza at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 to rally before starting a one-mile walk to the Bill Wilson Center Drop-In Center for homeless youth.

San Jose Council Member Tam Nguyen and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez led the crowd in repeating after them in chorus:

“They’re our kids! We will not rest until every child and young adult and member of our community has a home! A couch is not a home, and we will make it so!”

“We need people to know how big our problem is,” Chavez told the crowd that had assembled for the 5th Annual Green Light Rally and Walk organized by Bill Wilson Center (BWC) to raise awareness for homeless youth. “We need people to say, ‘Yes in my backyard’ [to new housing developments].”

The statistics released in September in the “Count Me! Hidden in Plain Sight” survey by BWC shocked the county. Santa Clara County has more than 2,500 homeless youth ages 18-25 on its streets. The county also has more than 13,000 homeless couch-surfing high school students.

The Thursday night BWC walkers donned green glow necklaces and haloes as they exited the plaza, passing through the Sonic Runway, a tunnel of 24 circular arches extending along Santa Clara Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets.

The giant rings—an art installation by the Burning Man Project—pulsated with colored lights activated by audio signals as walkers pushed a couch on wheels along the runway and on through downtown, passing homeless adults with backpacks and shopping carts along the way.

“Hey, ho, a couch is not a home,” they chanted, making their noisy way to the drop-in center at 693 South Second St.

The center is a cluster of four Victorian homes converted to provide services for the 50-60 homeless youth who drop in daily. Starting in January 2018, thanks to a grant administered by the City of San Jose, the homes will be gradually renovated—replacing old plumbing and reconfiguring rooms.

“Having the walk through downtown San Jose helps call attention to the issue of our homeless young people,” said Laura Foster, who heads the BWC Transitional Housing Program. “The couch being pushed reminds people that every night young people are sleeping in a different place.”

Cristian Martinez, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, volunteers with BWC.

“I found out that a lot of people don’t know about child homelessness, and I started looking into this. I found out that it actually does exist, and it’s a big issue,” said Martinez, who speaks about the issue at school.

“We have a home to live in,” said Tina Zhao, a Valley Christian High School (San Jose) junior, walking with two classmates and a mom. “It’s important to raise awareness for other kids the same age as us but without homes.”

“We’re trying to start conversations. Adults don’t often talk to teens even when they’re staying in their own house,” said BWC CEO Sparky Harlan. “Ninety percent of teens say they really wish more adults would talk to them.”

BWC, headquartered at 3490 The Alameda, Santa Clara, successfully helps house 87 percent of the homeless youth, including the couch surfers, who contact the center.

For advice on how to talk to and help teens on the cusp of homelessness, visit www.billwilsoncenter.org or call (408) 243-0222. The crisis hotline for youth and families is (408) 650-6125.