With the recent sale of the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter, we have come to the end of an era of using large institutions to serve abused and neglected children. As recently reported in the Mercury News, the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter is currently in escrow to be purchased by Harker School—a prestigious K-12 private school.
The Children’s Shelter was built in the early 90s, replacing a decrepit 70-bed nursing-home type building on Roberts Street. The old facility had large dormitory-style rooms with metal lockers lined up on the wall. It was truly depressing. Something had to change. Diane McKenna, who was on the Board of Supervisors at the time, took the lead on fundraising and building a new Children’s Shelter. With the support of the county, Diane and Regis McKenna formed a foundation to help fundraise for the new 132-bed, state-of-the-art campus, which included 10 12-bed cottages, an onsite school with cafeteria and recreational facilities.
While no one questioned the need to get children out of the Roberts Street shelter, the best practice at the time for treating children removed from their homes did not include using large institutions. In fact, most experts across the US were closing shelters down in the 90s and moving toward “family preservation” services—placing children in kinship care, or in foster homes. Early studies showed that kids were being further traumatized by spending even a few days in an institution, no matter how it looked or what services were provided.
I was one of the lone voices at the time questioning the need for a large institution. My concern was that it was almost doubling the size of the existing shelter and there would be pressure to fill all the beds. With a comfortable place to house kids, I feared there might be less pressure for social workers to reunite children with their families quickly. I especially opposed housing children under the age of 6 in such an institution. We were basically building a new orphanage in a county that prided itself on cutting-edge services and best practices.
The Shelter quickly ran into issues upon opening. A lawsuit against the state by the National Center for Youth Law required that all children under the age of 5 be removed from institutions and placed in kinship care or foster homes. I still remember the sight of 12 toddlers walking two-by-two, hand-in-hand, back from the cafeteria to their cottage when visiting the Shelter. It disturbed me to think we couldn’t find a relative or foster home to care for these very young children. Apparently, it also disturbed the courts.
Over the years the Shelter changed to serve primarily older teenagers with behavior or mental health issues—often the kids that “failed” group home placements and multiple foster homes. Many of these kids stayed months at the facility and it became their home. Will Lightbourne changed all this when he took over as the new director of Social Services.
Along with his staff, Will implemented “best practice” services to reduce the number of children that were removed from their homes. Soon the number of children requiring housing from the Children’s Shelter dropped dramatically. In 2010, the Children’s Shelter stopped housing children and changed to a 23-hour assessment center. After the assessment, children returned home, went to relative care, or were placed in temporary foster homes. Running an assessment center out of such a large residential facility was not particularly cost-effective, but it was better than leaving the place empty. After the recession hit and funding became tighter, the Board of Supervisors agreed to sell the property and move the assessment center to a smaller location.
I posted a blog about the Children’s Shelter some time ago and it remains one of my most popular posts to this day. I received a lot of feedback from youth who had stayed at the shelter; many of them were unhappy to see it close. They felt the Shelter had been their home and cared deeply for the counselors who had watched over them. One young man recalled the “quiet room”—a padded room they would be locked in as punishment if they’d done something wrong—equating the room with a child being sent to his bedroom by his parents. While the Shelter may have been better than the homes some of these kids had been removed from, this example goes to show just how institutionalized these youth had become. I for one am happy to see the county finally close the chapter on the Children’s Shelter.
It not quite Halloween yet but we are already preparing for the holidays at Bill Wilson Center. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday you celebrate, we all have hopes that loved ones will join together to celebrate with gifts and food. For many kids in foster care or homeless shelters, Christmas can be a depressing time. There often is no family celebration and usually there are no gifts.
For the past 8 years, we have been fortunate to have Air Systems Inc. employees host a huge party for youth in our shelter at Christmastime. They bring in pizzas, organize games and crafts, and provide presents for each youth. Last year, one young man said it was the first time he received anything for Christmas – it was a touching moment.
In an effort to make the holidays special for foster youth and homeless kids, Bill Wilson Center runs an annual holiday gift drive called Adopt-A-Family. Funded primarily through private donations, Adopt-A-Family connects caring donors to around 1,000 children who are in foster care or homeless or who have families who cannot afford to buy gifts.
We work directly with the Santa Clara County Department of Children and Family Services to identify children with the greatest need. Social workers provide a list of items the youth would like to receive as gifts along with a brief description of the child. Sometimes the requests are specific, like when a child needs a warm winter coat or new shoes. Other requests are more general and may mention a character the child likes along with a request for games or books.
To fill the requests we need a large number of volunteers to step up to “adopt” a young person for the holidays. We ask that people spend around $100, but no more than $200 on up to three gifts. These gifts are usually the only ones a child will receive. We have several families that pick a child every year to “adopt” and it has become a family tradition to go shopping together.
When a child is homeless or in foster care, a little goes a long way. If you would like to get involved in the Bill Wilson Center Adopt-A-Family program, please visit our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like most nonprofit human services agencies, at Bill Wilson Center our fiscal year starts July 1st. Budget-crunching time for the new fiscal year starts in January after we finish up our holiday fund-raising. This is also when Santa Clara County and the City of San Jose release their first estimates of cuts they may need to make for the upcoming fiscal year, so we get a first glimpse of where they may cut contracts with community based organizations. At the same time, we are busy writing proposals competing against other worthy nonprofit organizations for limited dollars from the public sector. As CEO for the past 30 years, some years clearly stood out as very difficult, while other times were great, as far as being successful in our proposal-writing.
If you are lucky enough to be like Bill Wilson Center, you also have some federal grants. In 1974 federal legislation established funds to help support shelters for runaway and homeless youth. Since that time services have expanded to include street outreach, emergency shelter, and transitional living services for youth who cannot return home.
For the past 20 years we have had a grant that provides transitional housing services to homeless youth ages 18-22. This year we knew the grant cycle was ending as of September 30, 2012, so we were back in the competitive cycle, at the mercy of a review panel of volunteer experts. When my board of directors approved our new annual budget in late June, I was nervous knowing that we could still lose $400,000 in September when we would find out about our federal grants. So, I froze a couple of vacant staff positions and let the board know that I did not recommend any increases in salaries until October 1, when we would receive notice on the two outstanding proposals.
Of course, you never know what is going on with the federal review process; however, past experience has shown me that the feds start calling in early September to negotiate new contracts. By mid September I was getting nervous. I emailed the federal staff and asked when we should hear about the funding but they replied that they were still working on it.
On September 24th I was up in San Francisco being interviewed by KCBS news on my experience being named a White House “Champion of Change” for my work with homeless youth. With me was the Executive Director of Larkin Street Youth Services, Sherilyn Adams, who was the only other person in California that was also recognized as a “Champion of Change.” While waiting for the interview, we started talking about our federal TLP grants. Both of us were waiting to hear about whether we were successful in our re-application. It was only six days until the end of the federal fiscal year and the end of our grants and still no word. We both had youth living in programs funded by this grant and staff that would need adequate notice if we had to shut down.
Sherilyn’s comment was, “Sparky, we have both been honored as national “Champion of Change” for our work with homeless youth. They won’t de-fund us!” I actually was reassured – not that I thought they wouldn’t cut our funding, but I knew Larkin Street had won national awards for their work with homeless youth so surely they wouldn’t lose their funding.
Then the other shoe dropped – the morning of October 1st I received a call from Sherilyn informing me that Larkin Street had not been funded and neither had Bill Wilson Center. Apparently, the feds posted the new grantees on their website on September 27, but didn’t notify anyone. Someone who occasionally consults with them was sent the link, and she sent it on to programs she knew were waiting. I tried calling the Region IX federal officer who oversees these grants but she was unavailable.
It is October 3 and I still have not received any official word from the federal staff regarding this grant nor have I been directed to the website where the results are posted. Bill Wilson Center and Larkin Street Youth Services have been providing housing to homeless youth with this funding support for 20 years so it is not easy to accept that somehow we suddenly didn’t know how to write a proposal, or our program outcomes suddenly did not compare to programs in two small towns in northern California that did receive the grants.
When the CEO from Larkin Street called someone higher up in the federal department to ask why we weren’t given more notice that our funds would be cut, he said that she should have planned for this. He said that every five years when programs have to reapply for the funds they should wind down their programs and shut down. Then, if they get the funds again, they can start up anew. I can’t think of anything more disruptive to homeless youth or more wasteful than starting and closing programs every five years. I have a better idea – how about putting the “request for proposals” out three months earlier and giving programs three months notice that they are not being funded again? That would help us transition clients and staff and not disrupt lives.
Thank goodness we put some money aside in this year’s budget to help cushion the loss of this grant. If I am lucky, we can reapply in next year’s cycle and maybe get the funding back. I can keep the Transitional Living Program going this year by pinching pennies, freezing salaries, and increasing fundraising, but next year I’m looking at even more funding cuts. We will need to increase private donations if we are to maintain housing and support services for homeless youth.
Groan. No wonder the average lifespan for a nonprofit CEO is only five years!
I just received recognition from the White House for my work with homeless youth! I was one of thirteen individuals named as a Champion of Change in the Fight Against Youth Homelessness, and was honored today at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan facilitated a panel discussion with me and my fellow Champions regarding challenges we face in helping homeless youth and families. I spoke about kids in the juvenile justice system who sometimes cannot return home who need better options than aging out of juvenile hall. Luckily, our Santa Clara County Probation Department agrees and has been placing kids in our Multidementional Treatment Foster Care program and sending kids home with Wrap-around services.
Bill Wilson Center is also seeing more homeless teens from homeless families. Homelessness has become a generational problem. We often have to help the family find housing if we are to reunite youth with their families in stable housing. These are just some of the issues we are addressing in our effort to end youth and family homelessness by 2020.
I am looking forward to attending next week’s National Alliance to End Homelessness conference here in Washington DC. I hope to learn more about what others are doing to combat youth and family homelessness!
Yesterday the US Supreme Court struck down mandatory “life without parole” sentences for juveniles. Currently 28 states have such laws. The Court did not say youth could not receive life sentences, only that it could not be mandatory. The 5-4 decision cited research on that the adolescent brain is not fully developed. Youth advocates were waiting for this ruling, and had high expectations that these mandatory sentences would be over-turned. Now judges will be able to take into consideration the age and development of the minors being tried as adults.
It appears that Missouri is again taking the lead on juvenile justice cases. In the past Missouri was seen as a progressive state in how it treated its juveniles, but the past few years the state has passed harsher laws, including trying youth as adults and automatic sentences of life without parole for certain murders. The case decided by the Supreme Court originated from Missouri and had been struck down by the Missouri Court.
There are currently 2000 youth in jail serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Now these cases will be reviewed and the courts will be able to consider the culpability of each youth at the time of the crime and if age was a factor. Should a 14-year-old who wasn’t the shooter in a murder case receive life without parole? Now our justice system can decide on a case-by-case basis. I am not condoning murder or advocating for lenient sentences. However, judges and juries should have the right to treat juveniles differently if the circumstances warrant it.
What You Don't Know About Family and Youth Homelessness Can Hurt: The 2012 National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference
Last week Housing 1000 sent our Americorps VISTA member, Katherine, to volunteer at this year’s National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference. She met some other awesome volunteers there, including Christina with Ascencia , Nicole with the Fresno Housing Authority and Dores with La Puente. Thanks to all the volunteers for organizing this great conference! We hear La Puente has a couple Americorps volunteers of its own…aren’t they great?
Recently, I have been working with the staff at Bill Wilson Center to assess why kids walk away from our residential program. We provide housing, counseling, and support services to nearly 400 youth each year in our 20-bed facility.
Over 80% of our kids are reunited with their families. However, 10% of our residents leave without permission at least once during their stay with us. Most of the youth return after a couple of hours. Others stay away a few days before returning. Some, those who never wanted to come to our place, don’t return, but we do follow-up with parents to check if the youth has gone back home.
I spoke with one 14-year-old youth who has walked away from us four times. I asked him what would make him stay, and he said he didn’t know. He said he was used to the freedom on the street and struggled with our structured program, so we modified our rules so he could have more freedom. He did say he likes it at Bill Wilson Center because we always take him back. With our “no fail” philosophy we work with these runaways until they are ready to stay.
An evaluation of our walk-aways showed that many left after school. Not surprising, these kids wanted to see friends after school, not stay at BWC for an afternoon filled with workshops and counseling. Others leave after arguing with other kids in the program.
We are looking at the data and implementing new support services to prevent some of these walk-aways. We are a program that works with chronic runaways, so we know we will always have kids who will run from us. We will be there when they need us, and we will do what it takes to figure out how we make the connection with these kids.
On December 9, 2012 I revisited Waimea Canyon Trail via Kukui Trail. Below is a writeup I did last year when I completed a one-way hike down the canyon to the town of Waimea. Not much is available on this hike so I decided to post it since the information is still valid. The big difference for this hike was the water level of Waimea River. Last year I was crossing knee-hike to thigh-high water that was murky red. Although the water was warm, the 14 crossings were challenging. I now know, from talking to an experienced Waimea Canyon hike leader, that the river only runs deep red when it is high, and should be crossed at these times by folks who have done these types of crossings before. It is probably not a good idea to do the hike under these conditions alone.
However, a year later the hiking conditions were totally different. The hike down Kukui Trail was easy because it was dry, therefore, not as slippery when wet like last year. However, it still drop 2,000 in 2.5 mile so it is steep in part and can be tricky. When I reached Waimea River I was stunned with how low it was. I had brought my Teva sandals in my daypack anticipated the river crossings, but the water was so low I could easily hop across rocks without getting my feet wet. If I had hiked the Waimea Canyon Trail down to Waimea this time, the hike would have been moderate rather than strenuous.
Crossing the river last year 14 times when the river was high was tiring. I had my car this time at the Kukui Trailhead so I hiked up Waimea Canyon instead of down. I am taking an educated guess, that if you go down river when the water is very low you will not need to cross back and forth so much. Please comment on my blog if you hike down the canyon. I did discover why the river was so low — up river the water was being diverted into a large drain/dam. I have no idea if this is going to permanently impact the water level in Waimea River; however, locals in the town of Waimea did make comments about someone diverted the water and fish were now dying. Who knows for sure. Corn has now replaced the sugarcane crop. Perhaps it is taking more water from the river on the dry side of Kauai.
Writup on Waimea Canyon Trail to town of Waimea:
On November 4, 2010, I hiked from Kukui Trail in Waimea Canyon to the town of Waimea. I started at 8 am from the Trailhead which is located between mile marker 8 and 9 on highway 550. The 2.5 mile hike down was uneventful, but a little slippery with mud, loose dirt and rocks. Look for trail and stay off the cuts to switchbacks. Once you reach trail marker 1.75 the trail enters the forest. The trail was easy to follow but in spring could be overgrown.
At the bottom was a backpacking camp with a pit toilet. The site was covered with cherry plums on the ground and smelled like rotting fruit. I walked straight down to the river and was dismayed to see how high the river looked. however, this was not the trail. I backtracked and found a sign that had Waimea Canyon Trail down the road to the right. Soon the first river crossing appears. It took me some time to figure the best place to cross. The entire trail down Waimea Canyon is mostly a soft, red dirt road. However, there are 14 river crossings as the trail goes from side to side. After a mile and six river crossings I came to a power station and found a man working would told me that there were 14 river crossings in total. Also the river only gets slightly larger with most of the water coming from deep in the park and not from side streams. So, no need to worry about that — just worry about the storms upstream that may cause flash flooding. Watch on the river crossings to see if the water is getting higher. I am not sure the total distance from the backpacking camp to the beginning of the paved road to Waimea but someone scratched 9.5 in the sign so I am using that. There is one long section that climbs a bit on the left side of the canyon so feel free to put the hiking boots back on. The road follows the ditch for quite a while and then the road cuts up hill after crossing a metal bridge. Continue straight on a foot trail that follows the ditch. it will join back up to the road in a half mile.
Soon the road takes a turn back down to the river. The road is made of rock on this part as it drops 200 feet back down to cross the river again. just when I was getting use to dry hiking. A note on the river crossings – the water is brown from the red dirt and hard to see the bottom so step carefully. A hiking pole is really helpful. Do not lift your foot up before you are sure the other is securely planted. Look at the crossing to see where the vehicles are crossing so you can cross at the shallow part. Not always easy to see, especially when the river runs red.
- death in Catholic school
- death in middle school
- ending poverty
- Ending youth homelessness
- foster care
- juvenile justice
- juvenile probation
- Mental Health
- Missouri Model
- nobel peace prize
- Nonprofit CEO
- Racial Disparities in Sentencing
- runaway and homeless youth
- Social Services
- Youth Services