A Santa Clara County leader is leaving her role after 40 years of fighting for homeless youth.

Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, is retiring after joining the housing nonprofit in 1983. The center opened in 1973. Her legacy involves a yearslong commitment to supporting unhoused youth and the tenacity to back it up, advocates said.

“We’re not afraid to push those boundaries… that will remain at Bill Wilson Center beyond me. At age 70, it’s a good time for me to let somebody else step into the job,” Harlan told San Jose Spotlight. “This isn’t the last of me.”

Harlan has been working with homeless youth for more than half a century. Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward and Tuolumne County, she said her experiences in juvenile hall and with homelessness as a San Francisco State University student formed her perspective as an advocate. She did counseling and crisis work, eventually becoming the director of housing nonprofit Huckleberry House in San Francisco, where her drive for legislative advocacy began.

“I could fight for one person on the street or a few people where I worked. But if I change policy, I could help hundreds and thousands of kids,” Harlan said. “That’s what put me on the path to realizing… if systems didn’t work for kids, then we needed to change the systems.”

San Jose has the highest number of homeless young adults per capita across the nation’s major cities. San Jose’s Pavillion Inn project, which Harlan pushed for, will create 39 apartments for youth transitioning out of foster care. Other projects are in the works to provide affordable housing for low-income residents and youth.

Under Harlan’s leadership, the Bill Wilson Center’s programs help provide housing, basic needs and counseling for more than 5,000 residents. The center’s street outreach and crisis initiatives also serve thousands of people. One of Harlan’s most memorable moments was purchasing a building in downtown San Jose in 1999 to act as a drop-in services center. The organization originally leased the building and had three weeks to secure funding to keep the site and services intact. They succeeded, she added.

“That one always sticks out for me because the person who was trying to get the building said, ‘I will never underestimate a nonprofit agency again,’” Harlan said.

Bill Wilson Center’s new CEO Josh Selo said he’s drawn to the organization for its reputation as a leader in housing and youth advocacy.  Selo joins the center from his previous role as the director of West Valley Community Services, a nonprofit that provides basic needs and housing assistance.

“There is an overlap with the work that the Bill Wilson Center does with youth that identify as LGBTQ+, and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I feel like this was an opportunity,” Selo told San Jose Spotlight.

Former Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who interacted with Harlan throughout his years as a San Jose councilmember and supervisor, said Harlan’s energy allowed her to build financial, government and community support for her work.

“She was dealing with a population that didn’t have many resources, particularly younger people, kids who had to leave their homes, runaways, foster kids, kids with mental health and drug issues,” Yeager told San Jose Spotlight. “She provided a home and services for them that nobody else was providing.”

Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving said Harlan is a force for vulnerable youth. Loving said even as a shelter worker in 1996, Harlan had already been on the scene. Organizations will still be working alongside Selo to establish temporary and permanent housing options for youth, she added.

“Everyone’s a little afraid of her and also in great admiration for all the work she’s done. That’s a pretty good legacy,” Loving told San José Spotlight. “Her sheer commitment to this issue allowed and made way for so many kids to be helped, and she’s never wavered in that.”

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight. Please use the original link when sharing: https://sanjosespotlight.com/silicon-valley-youth-champion-sparky-harlan-retires-after-40-years/

Loan-Anh Pham | San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight