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Legislation would help California’s homeless youth

By Sparky Harlan and John Burton

During the day, Julie, age 15, attended a local Santa Clara high school. At night, she slept at Bill Wilson Center’s safety net shelter for youth. Julie’s mom, who struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse, worked to maintain housing in Silicon Valley; however, after a major rent increase, she fell behind on the payments and her family was evicted.

With no alternatives, Julie’s mom had little choice but to move into her car. She kept her son with her, the younger of her two children, but dropped Julie off at BWC. Unsurprisingly, Julie felt angry, depressed and abandoned.

Now, imagine having only 21 days to address the challenges confronting this California family. Twenty-one days is the current time limit programs such as BWC must operate within when serving the youth who arrive at their doorstep.

Sadly, Julie’s story is far from unique. California is home to 54% of the nation’s homeless youth. Many homeless youth have histories of family conflict, including abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Some have been kicked out of their home, while others were removed because their guardian was unable to care for them.

It is programs like BWC that provide safety and care during a young person’s time of need, but youth need time to receive their services. Last year, BWC successfully reunited 85% of shelter residents with their families; however, over 25% required more than 21 days to resolve their complex cases before exiting to stable housing.

Thankfully, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, has introduced Assembly Bill 1235, which would extend the service window at shelters like BWC from 21 to 90 days. Co-sponsored by BWC and John Burton Advocates for Youth, the proposed legislation would make a significant difference for shelters working to prevent youth homelessness and effectively reunify families. If Julie had not found BWC, the consequences could have been swift and severe. For youth, even temporary experiences of homelessness can have detrimental impacts that follow them to adulthood. At an increased risk of exposure to violence, substance abuse and sex trafficking, just one night on the street can unalterably change the course of a young person’s life.

But Julie did find BWC. Anchored by their team of specialists, Julie’s family worked to address past trauma; meanwhile, Julie was able to catch up on her academic coursework and receive the personal support she needed. After BWC helped Julie’s mom find an affordable rental unit, their family was successfully reunited. Through AB 1235, BWC and other Runaway and Homeless Youth Program shelters will be able to more effectively deliver sustained stability for young people like Julie.

AB 1235 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 8. The bill deserves the enthusiastic support of the Legislature and the governor’s office. California’s homeless youth are depending on it.

Sparky Harlan is CEO of the Bill Wilson Center. John Burton is a former representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and former president pro tempore of the California Senate.

Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, left, speaks during a news conference at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in San Jose.

BAY AREA NEWS GROUP FILE PHOTO

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