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Bill Wilson Center’s Sparky Harlan Honored as a White House “Champion of Change”

Bill Wilson Center's Sparky Harlan Honored as a White House

In the South Bay, no one should be surprised that Bill Wilson Center CEO Sparky Harlan was honored on July 11 as a White House Champion of Change. Ever since she took the reins at the iconic Santa Clara-based youth social services agency nearly 30 years ago, Harlan has a consistent track record of changing “can’t” to “done” – regardless of the size or nature of the challenge.

Harlan was one of 13 people the President recognized for leading significant changes in the ways their communities address homelessness among children and youth.


Part of President Obama’s Winning the Future Initiative, Champions of Change weekly recognizes a different public service sector, honoring a broad spectrum of community leaders for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities.

One of the Champions program’s foundational principles is, in the words of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, “Change doesn’t come from the top-down. It comes from the bottom up.” In other words, it’s the innovators such as Harlan that can direct the federal compass to the most effective policy approaches.

“I’m proud to work for the first president ever to put in place the first strategic plan to end homelessness,” Donovan said, referring to the 2009 Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act signed by President Obama in 2009.

“But let’s be clear. Opening doors didn’t just start in Washington. The federal government didn’t wake up one day and decide that it could or would end homelessness. It was only possible because of the people we honor today as Champions of Change and so many of you here in the audience.

“We honor these champions not simply for the progress they’ve made,” he continued, “but for the innovations they’ve forged at the local level on one of the most tragic forms of homelessness: homelessness among our young people. Of the more 1.2 more of the people helped by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program, over 75 percent were families with children. Cities are reporting that 90 percent of families receiving Rapid Rehousing assistance remain housed today.”

Under Harlan’s leadership, the Bill Wilson Center has been a pioneer in building structural social change rather than “band-aid” fixes. The non-profit offers 360-degree family support that ranges from crisis intervention to long-term counseling, permanent housing, and coordination with schools, colleges and social services agencies. Harlan recently recruited Santa Clara County nonprofits, community groups, and corporate leaders for a county-wide initiative to end youth and family homelessness.

One profound policy change in which Harlan played a key role was increasing the federal government’s definition of “youth” to those as old as 21. This simple change expanded the services umbrella to young people aging out of foster care – something Harlan has been advocating for many years.

“It expands the full spectrum of services that champions like…Sparky Harlan have proven we need,” explained Donovan. “In the next few days we’ll be posting the new Continuum of Care program on HUD’s website. Combined with our new emergency grant program, this will bring that holisitic approach to the federal level…Collectively, these efforts will provide communities with the tools they need for change.”

“It’s great to see this kind of change,” said Harlan, in the roundtable that followed Donovan’s remarks. “When we decided to look at youth homeless, we had to look at family homeless. If the parentss are homeless, we have to work with the family. We’re finding the best outcome is putting that family back together…About a third of our homeless youth coming from homeless families.”

You can watch the July 11 event and the roundtable discussion among the honorees by visiting and typing “Champion of Change” in the search box in the upper right.


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