South Bay youth center continues out leadership

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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Sparky Harlan, who retired earlier this year as executive director of the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara, reviewed a collection of photos and newspaper clippings through the four decades she worked advocating for Silicon Valley's homeless youth and families. Photo: Heather Cassell
Sparky Harlan, who retired earlier this year as executive director of the Bill Wilson Center in Santa Clara, reviewed a collection of photos and newspaper clippings through the four decades she worked advocating for Silicon Valley's homeless youth and families. Photo: Heather Cassell

A new era is being ushered in at the Bill Wilson Center , a youth and family housing, education, counseling, and advocacy organization in Santa Clara County that also works with LGBTQ people.

Earlier this year, longtime South Bay youth and family homeless advocate Sparky Harlan, 70, the center's bisexual CEO, retired. The center has its headquarters in the city of Santa Clara and also has programs in San Jose.

Josh Selo, 47, a gay man, succeeded Harlan in taking the helm of the more than $30 million organization that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He is the former executive director of West Valley Community Services.

The Bill Wilson Center serves nearly 5,000 youth, young adults, and families annually through 30 programs supported by 218 staff, according to the executive search firm, Oppenheim, hired by the center's board to search for Harlan's replacement.

Santa Clara City Council members celebrated the center's 50th anniversary with a ceremony and honored the award-winning Harlan with a plaque at its meeting earlier this year.

According to a news release from the city of Santa Clara, the center was founded by Bill Wilson Jr., a former councilmember (1963-1971) and mayor (1965). He launched the organization as the Webster Center in 1973. The center combined counseling for students in local and secondary schools with a family therapy program. In 1977, the center's name was changed to its founder's namesake after his passing. Wilson's son, Alex Wilson, who serves on the center's board of directors, was also present at the anniversary ceremony.

The Bay Area Reporter recently spoke with Harlan about her accomplishments over her 40-year career, and Selo about his vision for the center's future and tackling the South Bay's homeless youth problem. The United Way ranked San Jose #1 for youth homelessness in the United States, according to a survey released in January, The survey's key findings noted the tech capital has the highest population of Generation Z youth experiencing homelessness, with nearly 85% unhoused Gen-Zers per 100,000 residents in the U.S. The survey also pointed out that Pacific Islanders and Black Americans are most at risk to experience homelessness.

The nonprofit United Way of the National Capital Area analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the number of people experiencing homelessness and vacant housing units in 100 major cities.

Voice for homeless youth for four decades

Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward and Tuolumne County, Harlan said her background "partially" drove her to her career. She found herself in trouble often in her teens, when she was spending time on the streets and was arrested several times for what was then termed as "status offenses," which encompassed curfew violations and "out of parental control," she said.

However, she was smart and good in school, Harlan said. She left home and moved to San Francisco when she turned 17 in 1970.

"I was unstably housed between the street and housing [and] going to college at the same time," she said, noting back then students couldn't self-declare their independence and obtain student loans on their own like they can today. They were at the mercy of their parents signing the paperwork to get funding to pay for college.

"My parents didn't believe in college," she said, so she was on her own choosing affordable San Francisco State University over the more expensive UC Berkeley. She later attended St. Mary's College where she earned her graduate degree in nonprofit management. She struggled, finding herself on the streets off and on, until she found a live-in work situation at the now-defunct Damien House, an organization for street youth in San Mateo, when she was 18 years old, she said. Her career working with substance abuse issues and street youth was born.

At the same time, the women's and LGBTQ movements were emerging. She started discovering her identity, identifying as "bisexual, but more lesbian," in the 1970s, she said.

"Wow, I'm in San Francisco, all these women and it's like, it's like I'm in heaven," Harlan said. "It's like I've found my people ... it's really that time when I started discovering my identity."

Harlan quickly moved up at Damien House. Within a year, she was director of the 24/7 hotline. She became a counselor at Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco in 1972. In 1976, she was appointed director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, which was founded in 1967.

"Huckleberry House is probably really where we started doing extensive services for LGBT-identified youth big-time," Harlan said about her work with Brian Slattery, a gay man who was co-director of Huckleberry. "We were all about, 'Let's do more services targeted toward LGBT kids.'"

In 2019, Huckleberry Youth Programs was damaged in a fire, the B.A.R. previously reported. The space served as the organization's administrative offices. The organization relocated to a new building not far away from its former office. The burned-out building on Geary Boulevard is currently up for sale.

Harlan and Slattery started applying for grants and developing programs targeting queer youth.

"We got into trouble on a couple of our programs because we were getting federal funds specifically placing LGBT kids into jobs," she said. She recalled using funding from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, known as CETA, to place young gay men in paid internships in the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt's office in the 1970s. Britt was appointed to the board by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein after the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk. (Feinstein is now a U.S. senator and recently announced she will not seek reelection in 2024.)

"In the late 1970s, and being in San Francisco when Harvey Milk was shot, we didn't feel safe at all," Harlan recalled.

Yet, she and many others weren't willing to back down. Harlan became a thorn in the side of late North Carolina conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1976. (Helms held his seat in Congress from 1973-2003. He died in 2008.)

"[Helms] killed CETA," because her program was placing gay men into housing and helping them get jobs, she said. He "cited our program and San Francisco as the reason why the program shouldn't exist."

"We were doing a lot of work educating people as we are doing this research and studying around it," she said.

"Huckleberry was in the forefront of this whole movement," Harlan said, noting that Huckleberry helped launch Larkin Street Youth Services in 1984 when the organization was then known as Youth Advocates. Heather Mathews, Huckleberry's director of marketing and events, confirmed the organization's linked history. Harlan said a lot of work around sex work, domestic abuse, and sexual identity overlapped at the time.

"A lot of these early services called 'sexually exploited youth services' were really focused on LGBT-identified kids," she recalled.

The B.A.R. was unable to locate Slattery for a comment for this article.

Harlan continued to rock the boat in the South Bay with her advocacy and policy work for homeless youth and families when she took the helm of the Wilson center in 1983. She built coalitions with organizations and South Bay leaders and funders for the center's programs, and created policies that became a national model for working with homeless youth, especially LGBTQ youth, and families. She also joined boards and volunteered for other nonprofit organizations.

Highlights of her career included opening Peacock Commons to provide permanent supportive housing in 26 apartments for clients ages 18-24.

In 1999, the Bill Wilson Center bought a building in downtown San Jose where its LGBTQ drop-in center for youth ages 16-25 is housed.

The center's headquarters in Santa Clara provides housing, basic needs, and counseling for nearly 5,000 residents, according to its 2022 annual report. The center provides shelter to more than 900 unhoused youth nightly, Harlan noted to the B.A.R. That doesn't include the thousands of people helped by the center's outreach efforts.

Her early experience in San Francisco informed her leadership style and hiring practices when she took the helm at the center in 1983. Throughout her tenure she staffed the center with talented youth who were clients and diversified the staff by hiring queer people and people of color to reflect the center's clientele, she said.

No one like Sparky

Harlan put the spark into people's interests for homeless youth and families in the South Bay, colleagues observed.

"[It] is a testament to what an incredible manager, fundraiser, CEO, and advocate she is," said gay retired Santa Clara County supervisor Ken Yeager, 70. He described Harlan as direct and "adamant about what she wanted" for building and funding a safe haven from housing to employment services for homeless youth and families, especially LGBTQ youth, and got it for four decades.

"I'm not sure who else could do it," he added. "I think that's why she was so successful for over 40 years."

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez called Harlan "our beloved fearless leader," describing Harlan's "legacy" as one of "total commitment to young people whom others have walked away from."

Chavez said Harlan demonstrated "a fierce strategic approach" to fight for resources "for the young people of our community."

Congressmember Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) agreed, stating, "There are thousands of reasons that her legacy is that of a genuine hero of Santa Clara County," expressing that Harlan's 40 years of commitment to homeless youth "won't end with her retirement."

"I'm confident that Sparky will continue to be committed to ensuring that every youth has what they need to be healthy and self-sufficient," she said.

Chavez expressed sadness about Harlan, whom she described as a colleague and a friend, stepping down.

"I'm very sad about her leaving, but I'm also excited about Josh," she said, referring to Selo. "He's stepping into an incredible agency, and I think he's ready to take the helm."

The B.A.R. spoke with Kiwi, who chose to use a pseudonym to protect their and their family's privacy, a former homeless client at the center. Now 28, the finsexual two-spirit person said they were lucky with each step of their journey through homelessness due to the center's staff, services, and peer support. (A finsexual person is attracted to feminine-presenting people.)

The Native American started receiving free therapy services at the center when they were a teenager still living at home. When their situation at home became too much, their therapist connected them to a case manager who helped them get out of their situation when they were 22 years old. Their friends' and friends' parents temporarily offered couches and rooms around San Jose during the two to three months after they left their parents' home and before they were placed into the center's rapid rehousing program.

"I wasn't sleeping on the street specifically. I was crashing at people's houses, couch surfing," they told the B.A.R. "I knew that it wasn't going to be safe on the streets."

Once Kiwi moved into their new home, they continued working, going to college, and participating in the center's programs, including serving as chairman of the Youth Impact Partnership program, until they aged out of the program two years ago when they were 26 years old.

"It took a community for me to be able to exist here today, and it takes a community to make, I feel, other clients [to] feel loved enough to be able to take steps to start to go in the direction that they need to," said Kiwi, who is now graduating from college.

While they never worked directly with Harlan, despite her open-door policy, it was the team Harlan put together and the peer community that helped them during the six years they were a client at the center to get to where they needed to be, they said.

When the B.A.R. asked Harlan what she planned to do in retirement, she asked, "What is any lesbian doing in retirement? They hike, right?"

Josh Selo, the Bill Wilson Center's new executive director, is shown here at a Rotary Club of Cupertino event a few years ago. Photo: Courtesy Rotary Club of Cupertino  

Vision for the future
Selo, 47, is keenly aware of what Harlan accomplished during her career. He is full of gratitude for being entrusted to continue the work she started leading the center into its future.

Harlan called Selo a "perfect choice" to succeed her, telling the Mercury News, "He is a people-person and tireless advocate for those most in need in our community."

"I'm excited to pick up at this time and lead us forward," said Selo, stating that he looks forward to working with the center's team to "commit ourselves to build on the foundation and the track record that we're known for."

During his tenure at West Valley Community Services, the Mercury News reported that he managed a $2,125,000 remodel of the organization's food pantry, doubling its size allowing clients to shop for their own groceries like a market, and grew the organization in the heart of COVID-19. He also raised the funds to purchase the Park-it Market mobile food pantry. The mobile pantry currently serves more than 1,600 clients at schools and senior housing complexes.

Selo said his accomplishments were due to good relationships "with a broad spectrum of stakeholders."

"One of the areas that I excel in is bringing people together to work towards advancing the mission and the work of the organization ... to help them see the impact of investing in our vision of providing a greater range of access and services to our clients," he said.

Selo is exhilarated to be at the center working with youth, an age group he hasn't worked with since the beginning of his career, he said. At WVCS, he worked mostly with adults and seniors. He's particularly thrilled to work with LGBTQ youth, something he hasn't done before, he told the B.A.R.

He's also excited about continuing the policy work started by Harlan.

"Public policy work is really at the heart of addressing the inequities in our society that make our services necessary at all," said Selo, a self-described idealist. "If we really want to see the world that our vision says that we're trying to build, we have to look at what are the systems, what are the policies that are making our services necessary, especially here in Silicon Valley.

"What are the systems in place that are contributing to the homelessness crisis?" he asked.

"There's not an easy answer. There's not an easy solution," Selo said. "But I do believe, I have to believe, that there are enough people committed to addressing the problem at hand. I also firmly believe that there is enough money to address this problem, if not here in Silicon Valley, then nowhere else."

Selo optimistically added, "This is doable. This is possible."

For more information about the Bill Wilson Center, go to

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