Just as Pittsburgh is known as Steel City, Detroit for its automobiles, Hollywood for its movies and Cleveland as the rubber band capital of the United States, Colorado Springs has established a reputation as a nonprofit center of America.
Only New York, Chicago and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area are home to a greater number of the nation's top 100 nonprofits, according to the New Jersey-based Non-Profit Times.
Beginning nearly 15 years ago, with the city's economy in the dumps, the local Economic Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce -- with financial relocation incentives provided by the El Pomar Foundation -- decided to court national and international nonprofit groups.
Their reasons to entice charitable and religious organizations to establish their headquarters to Colorado Springs were twofold: First, nonprofit groups were generally considered "clean" business, both for the environment and for the community. Second, the national and international exposure that company headquarters bring to a community is priceless.
Today, more than 100 of the nation's biggest-budget charities call Colorado Springs home, including five of America's largest nonprofit organizations. The United States Olympic Committee, Junior Achievement, Young Life and the Navigators and their publishing arm NavPress -- which were already located in the Springs -- are now joined by dozens of national and international groups. More than 60 of them are religious -- including Focus on the Family, Every Home For Christ and the International Bible Society. Many more are national athletic groups, including the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, U.S. Cycling Federation, USA Hockey, the U.S. Figure Skating Association and the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes.
The downside to the economic development leaders' strategy is also twofold: The exposure has not always cast Colorado Springs in a positive light. Notably, recent scandals within the United States Olympic Committee and the sometimes-extreme fundamentalist political stances of Focus on the Family have placed the city in an unfavorable national and international spotlight. And, because nonprofit groups pay no property taxes, some cite the greater-than-average loss of revenues to help pay for roads and other infrastructure in a fast-growing city.
And the big players often overshadow other nonprofit groups whose focus is local, not global. All told, the Colorado Springs Non-Profit Chamber reports more then 1,500 not-for-profit organizations in Colorado Springs. And the vast majority of those have small staffs and small budgets to work with. Whether their focus is on the arts, service clubs, youth, aged, disabled, indigent or the working poor -- these groups often offer services that the government cannot or will not provide.
An estimated 250 to 300 teen-agers in Colorado Springs are living without their families and without a home.
"They don't like to be called homeless; they say the streets are their home," says John McIlwee, executive director of Urban Peak, a nonprofit organization that works with the teen-agers.
"Our young friends have either chosen, or forced to be, on the streets of our city for various reasons. Some have come from abusive homes and had to leave to survive or just got tired of the treatment they were receiving. Many [left home] because of drugs, alcohol or mental health issues -- their own or their families.
"Very few of them run away as a lark and last on the street for any length of time."
Four years ago, Urban Peak organized with the singular goal of getting these kids off the street; they run a drop-in center four days a week and offer medical care, educational services, help with getting a job and case management. It's hard work for the teen-agers. They have to be serious about wanting to get their GED, get a steady job, and get into an apartment.
Right now 23 formerly homeless teens are living in their own apartments, thanks to Urban Peak. The organization is currently pursuing a capital campaign to raise $1.5 million for a homeless youth shelter.
To help raise awareness about the city's little-discussed youth homeless problem, Urban Peak volunteer and photographer Greg Kleinert has been photographing the teens. His photographs, featured on this page and on following pages, will be on display at a public exhibition next Thursday, Sept 25 at the Warehouse Gallery downtown. The teens will also be there to read their poetry aloud.
The Essence of Us: Exploring Homelessness Through Art
Thursday, Sept. 25, 6-9 p.m.
The Warehouse Gallery
25 W. Cimarron St.
Free and open to the public