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DENVER — David Jennings was 16 when he found himself on the streets, an angry, violent young man.
“I grew up in a really abusive household,” said Jennings, now 30. “I only understood one thing, and that was violence.”
After couch-surfing at a friend’s house, he went to a homeless shelter with a youth program. A counselor there referred him to Urban Peak, a Denver program that offers shelter, transitional housing, job training and more to homeless youth ages 15 to 24.
“I learned so much about myself and about the world, and that people really did care,” Jennings said of his year and a half living in an Urban Peak apartment and getting counseling through the program.
Adolescents and young adults on their own make up a fraction of the nation’s homeless population. Most face rejection or abuse from their families. Traditional programs aimed at the chronically homeless often place them in a potentially dangerous situation at a vulnerable age.
There's a lot that is still unknown about this sector of the homeless population. The numbers are inexact. And it's not clear beyond well-known programs in New York, San Francisco and Cincinnati, to name a few, just how many centers like Urban Peak exist. While more research needs to be done, what is clear is that they offer perspectives on how to prevent homeless teens from becoming homeless adults.
Every case unique
More than 610,000 people were counted as homeless in an annual survey conducted in January 2013 and reported to Congress in November. Of those, 200,000 were under 25, but only about 47,000 of those were estranged from their families, the report said.
Cities such as Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco have the highest concentrations of homeless youth.
Those annual numbers come from a “point-in-time” survey, when all information is taken on a single night by volunteers on the streets and in shelters. Since it's unlikely that volunteers can find everyone living on the streets, especially in urban areas, the actual numbers of homeless are apt to be larger.
In Colorado, for instance, the survey estimated 508 homeless youth on their own on that January night. Yet Urban Peak interacted with more than 2,300 young people in the year that ended in October.
Many come from foster homes, having aged out of that system. Others were kicked out or fled from their families. Often, their parents have mental health or substance abuse issues or both.
“Every case is a unique mix of issues,” said Kimberle Easton, Urban Peak’s CEO. “We have young people who’ve left home because their choice was to leave home or be sold into a prostitution ring.”
'They left home for a reason'
Jennings never knew his father; he was one of four boys his mother had by age 22.
“She married a man who was very violent,” he said. “My mom would kick me out and tell me she couldn’t handle me. I was a pretty angry kid.”
Jason Marquez tells a different story. At 19, he seemed to have an idyllic life.
"I had grown up in a rich, upper-class white family,” said Marquez, now 26.
But his parents kicked him out when he told them about his gender identity.
“I’m transgender, and I became homeless after informing my parents of my decision to transition,” he said. “To me, this was a necessity, this was something I had to do to be successful in life.”
He, too, wound up at Urban Peak, after seeking a place to stay at the group’s shelter.
There’s a certain stigma attached to young people living on the street that’s different from that for older, chronically homeless people, said Amy Dworsky, a senior researcher who studies youth and homeless issues at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall policy research center.
“I think people who do see homeless youth out on the street do sort of think they’re bad kids who should just go back to their parents,” Dworsky said. “Many of them can’t go back home to their parents. They left home for a reason.”
In fact, both Jennings and Marquez tried to reunite with their parents at least once before going to Urban Peak. Both ended up spending time in the organization’s transitional housing program.
For Marquez, the couple of years there gave him time to save money for surgery and a chance to learn how to live on his own.
“When you suddenly, abruptly become homeless,” he said, “that’s not something you’re ready for. A lot of the stuff we really take for granted in living independent is stuff we have to be taught.”
An array of assistance
One Tuesday in December, a dozen or so young people were on the street corner outside Urban Peak, talking, dozing, smoking and just generally hanging around.
Inside, on the first floor, is a drop-in center that is Urban Peak’s most popular service. A young person slept on a bench near the main desk, while others walked in and out. Inside, a couple of young men were asleep, heads on tables; others played cards or chatted. Around the corner, two volunteers with plastic boxes filled with beads, wiring and other adornments were teaching several clients to make earrings.
The center is open Monday through Friday, offering breakfast, showers, a laundry and lockers. There are classes in art, music, cooking and life skills offered almost every day. There’s also a health clinic with medical services.
In a second-floor classroom, young people worked at computers available for writing resumes, searching for jobs and studying for the GED. Photos and names of clients who passed the GED in 2013 adorned one bulletin board. Clients may enroll in employment and education classes that teach them how to get work or pursue more education.
Easton was an early-childhood specialist before coming to Urban Peak almost two years ago. She notes the differences in brain activity between traumatized youth and those who haven’t been abused or neglected. But even in adolescence or early adulthood, people can learn to build healthy relationships and lives, Easton said.
So counseling is also an offering. Jennings said he learned nonviolent coping mechanisms.
“I think that’s one thing Urban Peak helped me with, is knowing what boundaries really are,” he said. “Of knowing that if things don’t go well, nine times out of 10 it probably isn’t my fault.”
Marquez gained acceptance during his transition.
“I really did feel like the staff was invested in my success,” he said. “I felt like the people there really cared about what I was going through. The staff there was really respectful about my identity.”
But Urban Peak and similar programs don’t track clients once they leave, so there’s no sense of success rates. That troubles researchers like Dworsky.
“Most of the programs out there for homeless youth have not been evaluated,” she said. “In fact, almost none of them have been evaluated. We really don’t have a good sense of what happens to these kids after they leave these programs.”
“These young adults don’t fit well into the homeless-adult service provider situation,” said Gary Sanford, who founded Urban Peak in 1988 and is now director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. “A lot of agencies don’t know how to serve these young people and are challenged by them.”
When placed together with adults, young people may be abused or harassed, he said, and they might ask, "Wow, is this going to be my life in 20 to 30 years?”
It isn’t life for Marquez or Jennings.
Marquez worked in social services while living in one of Urban Peak’s transitional housing units and earned an undergraduate degree, “with excellent grades, I might add.” He now works for the state’s health care policy agency.
Jennings married at 20, bought a condo with his wife in a Denver suburb and now owns a business counseling seniors and their families on long-term care options. He’s on Urban Peak’s board of directors.
“It’s such an honor to give back to a program that helped someone like myself,” he said.
Both men also reunited with their families to an extent.
“My brothers and I talk on a weekly basis, if not daily basis,” Jennings said. “My mom and I probably talk on a monthly basis.”
As for Marquez, his parents “actually showed up on my doorstep a couple of years ago on my birthday,” he said. “I think they’ve kind of come to terms with my transition. They aren’t particularly keen on talking about that I was homeless and that they kicked me out. They have managed to come to terms with me being who I am.”
Still, Easton said earlier intervention with many of her clients would be more effective: “You invest in families and kids from day one, and you would have less kids at Urban Peak.”