Until three months ago, 19-year-old Candice spent fidgety nights curled in a cubbyhole inside a dusty, semi-abandoned warehouse.
She was terrified some of the homeless men who also slept there might rape her. She'd been attacked before and learned soon after she ran away from an abusive home at 13 years old to be careful about whom she trusted.
"I was treated horribly by everyone in Colorado Springs," she said. "It's hard out there."
Candice, who declined to give her last name citing fears that someone from her past might hunt her down and harm her, is one of roughly 100 homeless youths in the Colorado Springs area who, on any given night, lead an anxious existence in an often unforgiving city.
Last year, the Urban Peak chapter-- whose mission it is to help homeless and runaway teens -- helped 340 youth, a more than twofold increase from the 156 served in 2001, said the organization's Colorado Springs Executive Director John McIlwee. The teens are among roughly 1,000 estimated homeless people in Colorado Springs, a number that has risen more than 120 percent since 1995.
It is difficult to know why teen homelessness is rising, McIlwee said.
"We're not exactly sure. We can't seem to get a handle on it to explain why this is happening."
Out of the shadows
One common thread, he said, is than an increasing number of youth are coming from families that have struggled to pay rent, food and utilities in the sluggish economy of recent years -- a situation worsened in homes where teens already may be facing physical and emotional abuse.
Urban Peak, which launched in Colorado Springs about three years ago, hopes to reverse the trend, McIlwee said. Backed by a variety of charitable organizations and individuals, this month Urban Peak opened THE Place at 423 E. Cucharras St., downtown. THE Place provides 20 youths at a time up to 120 days of transitional housing while working closely with them to connect them to long-term housing opportunities; schools and colleges; mental health, anger-management and substance-abuse counseling; and jobs.
The high-profile opening of the center has already begun to lure new teens from out of the shadows, McIlwee said. It has him theorizing there could be many, many more homeless youths in the city that have somehow previously gone undetected by Urban Peak's social workers.
Learning the streets
While THE Place can help many, it isn't a place for homeless teens in need of immediate shelter to sleep -- something Candice says is sorely needed in Colorado Springs. She has been on the streets five years and blames the problem squarely on the city's main shelter, the New Hope Center run by the Salvation Army. The center does not allow youths under age 18 to stay at the shelter unless they are accompanied by their parents.
"I had nowhere to go," Candice said. "Nobody would take me. I've been outside constantly."
There have been few tranquil moments in Candice's five years on the streets. One night she heard gunshots and laid still, muffling her weeping because she thought someone was coming to kill her in a city with a reputation for rough treatment of homeless people. The National Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., last year ranked Colorado Springs as the 10th most dangerous place for homeless people to live, tying the city with large metro areas like Los Angeles and Baltimore. The ranking came after several homeless people were beaten in 2000, including two homeless men who were brutally murdered.
Candice credits a homeless man named "Bobo" with her long-term survival.
"He showed me where to sleep in the bushes," she said. "He told me how to hide from cops. He took me to the soup kitchen ... It serves just one meal a day. I learned to scrounge for more food."
She didn't want to beg -- especially in a city where leaders have often spoken of taking a hard line with the homeless. So she sold drugs in city parks.
"You have to be very slick about it," she said. "There are cops and there are snitches everywhere."
It wasn't lucrative, she said. A 2-ounce bag of pot could sell for around $120 and she had to spend some of the profit to buy more to sell. She'd be left with about $40 to spend. It wasn't enough to put a deposit on her own apartment, so she'd rent a room for a night or two instead, take a much-needed hot shower and buy a hot meal.
In the last three months, Candice has begun to turn her life around. She's had the luxury of time to think about her childhood goal of becoming a cosmetologist and recently signed up for beauty college. It's exactly the kind of aspiration that McIlwee says is needed if teens, many of them creating their own families on the streets, are to avoid eking out a lifetime of homelessness.
"It's already tough for these kids," he said. "They're on the streets because there was something wrong. They weren't making it at home. They really have to work and we have to work with them if they are going to be successful."
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