Editor's note: This story marks the first in a seven-week series highlighting the nine inaugural recipients of the Independence Community Fund.
Young, vulnerable and on the street, the homeless youth of Colorado Springs come from all types of families. They might have run away from a home where the fighting was just too constant or the threat of physical or sexual abuse too great. They might be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. They might have dropped out of school thinking that life on the streets was preferable to being trapped in a place where they perceived they were hated every day and constantly reminded of how they didn't fit in.
On the street, they are the targets of predatory adults. They may trade sexual favors for shelter. They may stay all night at Denny's nursing a cup of coffee, in a laundry room, in an abandoned building or under a bridge. They might "couch surf," crashing at the house of an acquaintance until they're no longer wanted.
If they're lucky, they might find their way to Urban Peak, the only service agency in the Springs dedicated specifically to the unique mission of helping homeless youth.
Whatever their circumstances, says Andrea Falvey, an Urban Peak caseworker, they are kids, still developing with special needs. Since December 2000, Urban Peak of Colorado Springs has served some 156 of them, first on the street and then from their offices above the Marion House Soup Kitchen. Of those 156, 40 have successfully exited the streets.
"At first it was kind of slow," said Falvey. "The kids didn't know who we were, that we could be trusted."
Every weekday, along with other Urban Peak staffers and volunteers, she approaches kids, usually in the center of the downtown area, offering socks, a soft drink and a chance to talk. Key to Urban Peak's program, she emphasizes, is no judgment and no coercion. Initially, contact may be limited to a very short interaction, but kids are invited to come to Urban Peak's offices during drop-in hours on Tuesday and Thursday where services can be expanded once a trusting relationship is established.
On and off the streets
On and off the streets
Clad in roomy parachute pants, a knitted cap and a hooded sweatshirt, Adrian's shy smile warms the room. He has come to Urban Peak to check in with his friends before leaving for Army boot camp in South Carolina early next week.
"When I first met them, I was very critical," he said. "I thought they were going to preach. But they are more of a 'kill you with kindness' kind of thing."
Homeless off and on for almost two years, Adrian says that Urban Peak helped him focus on the future, something difficult to do when living on the street.
"There's not much time for focusing on tomorrow; the essentials like finding food and a place to crash come first," he said.
Adrian left home initially because of continuous conflict with his parents. An attempt at living with a group of buddies failed quickly. "We were too busy being kids," he said. "We didn't realize we had responsibilities. In all honesty, I was just being complacent." He couch surfed for awhile, hung out in Acacia Park, a place he calls "a bastion of ill will," and eventually ended up living in his car in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
With the help of Urban Peak, Adrian, a high-school dropout at 17, completed his GED with high scores. After finishing his military tour, he hopes to attend college.
"It would have taken me a lot longer to get it together," he said, referring to the assistance he received from Urban Peak.
Down the hall, Tom, a neatly dressed young man in large white tennis shoes, sits on the Urban Peak upstairs sun porch, chatting with another caseworker.
Twenty-one years old now, Tom came to Urban Peak at 20 after spending almost two years living on the streets. He is diagnosed schizophrenic, a condition that caused him to land in the county jail when he was barely out of high school, convicted of first-degree arson. Upon leaving jail, he hooked up with the homeless community, sleeping between the I-25 bridges or wherever he could find a place to crash. A minor, he was not allowed at the Red Cross shelter.
"I tell everyone I'm 10," he laughed. "It's how I feel some time."
Since coming to Urban Peak for help, Tom has secured government-funded SSI disability payments, an efficiency apartment and steady medical treatment and medication. He lives independently but comes to check in with his Urban Peak counselors on a regular basis.
Today he is working on the speech he will deliver when he is honored at the first Urban Peak fund-raising dinner where he and three other clients, including Adrian, will be recognized for their successful graduation off the streets. (The dinner was held Wednesday, Nov. 7.) Writing, he says, is a comfort to him. He has invented a form he calls "traumatized drama," exploring the dream state as well as the pain and remorse of troubled children.
Urban Peak, he says, has helped him organize his life.
"They've helped me with my bills and to look better," he said, then added, "I have good friends here."
Across America, homeless youth are thought to number somewhere between 1 and 1.3 million, constituting one-third of the entire homeless population. In the Springs, Urban Peak's most recent count estimated some 50 youth living on the streets at this time.
"We often hear, 'I'm 19, but I've been on the street since I was 16,' " said Falvey. "Once we know the circumstances of the kid's homelessness, we can help them to gradually return home or to move to a self-sufficient living situation. If there's a diagnosis, we can help with placement for treatment. If they're in trouble with the law, we try to help them get a public defender. We stress the importance of staying on top of huge issues like legal problems or health problems.
"Our goal is to help them permanently exit the streets in a meaningful way."