For al­most 30 years, Ur­ban Peak has served home­less youths de­spite chal­lenges

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Suzanne S. Brown

Home­less youths look­ing for a break from the streets are hav­ing an eas­ier time of it with the re-open­ing ear­lier this week of The Spot, Ur­ban Peak’s drop-in cen­ter at 21st and Stout streets.

The fa­cil­ity had been open only by ap­point­ment in re­cent weeks, af­ter a tem­po­rary shut­down in late April amid con­cerns re­gard­ing safety and bud­get cuts. “On any given morn­ing, there would be 70 to 100 peo­ple wait­ing out­side for the doors to open so they could come in and get break­fast,” said CFO Malinda An­der­son, who has been at Ur­ban Peak nearly six years and is the in­terim CEO.

Along with the youths vis­it­ing The Spot at the time were home­less adults who were what An­der­son called “treat­ment-re­sis­tant.” The adults were of­ten try­ing to re­cruit youths to join their street fam­i­lies and get in­volved in drugs and such crimes as car theft, she said.

Things got in­tense when some of the youths in­ter­fered with po­lice try­ing to make an ar­rest of a sus­pected car thief, ac­cord­ing to An­der­son. The in­ci­dent un­folded with­out any­one get­ting

hurt, but ten­sions es­ca­lated and it was a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion.

The Spot has re­opened with new rules. Rather than of­fer­ing break­fast to those age 15 to 24, it now serves lunch to youths who are at­tend­ing classes or re­ceiv­ing case man­age­ment. An­der­son es­ti­mated about 20 peo­ple will be com­ing in on a daily ba­sis, with the num­ber ex­pected to grow along with staffing in months to come.

“Staffing lev­els are tied to fi­nan­cial re­sources, and we have ex­pe­ri­enced some re­duc­tions in fed­eral fund­ing,” An­der­son said. In ad­di­tion, Ur­ban Peak hasn’t raised as much rev­enue lo­cally as it had hoped. “So we had re­duced staffing this year while try­ing to main­tain pro­gram­ming as it was, which is one of the fac­tors that con­trib­uted to our safety con­cerns.”

The Spot, which Ur­ban Peak took over op­er­a­tion of in 2003, is housed in a 1937 two-story red brick build­ing across from its ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fices. It of­fers a va­ri­ety of ser­vices, from show­ers and laun­dry fa­cil­i­ties to coun­sel­ing and train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. While it is among Ur­ban Peak’s most vis­i­ble pro­grams, it’s only one of a num­ber of ser­vices of­fered by Denver’s only non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion for youths ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness or at im­mi­nent risk of be­com­ing home­less. The agency, which served more than 1,800 youths in 2016, has an out­reach and drop-in cen­ter team of five case man­agers, two ser­vice corps vol­un­teers and one su­per­vi­sor. It also pro­vides hous­ing, case man­age­ment and coun­sel­ing; ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices and job train­ing to help youths be­come sta­ble and self-suf­fi­cient whether they live on their own or re­turn to their fam­i­lies.

As it pre­pares to en­ter its 30th year, Ur­ban Peak — like the Five Points area where it is based — is see­ing a lot of changes, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­ment pres­sures.

“There is in­creas­ing ten­sion where you are see­ing priv­i­lege and poverty mix,” said Al­bus Brooks, Denver city coun­cil­man for District 9. “We’ve got five (build­ing) cranes across the street from them.”

Brooks said that in meet­ings with Ur­ban Peak this spring, he and other elected of­fi­cials of­fered re­sources to help the or­ga­ni­za­tion step up se­cu­rity as it con­tin­ues its mis­sion. Po­lice pa­trols have in­creased and they’ve at­tempted to keep the area around their build­ings clear. “Ur­ban Peak is about con­nect­ing in­di­vid­u­als to re­sources they need, and we want to make sure they have ev­ery­thing they need,” Brooks said. “We don’t want th­ese youths to be preyed on by home­less gang mem­bers and trav­el­ers. It has been a big chal­lenge.”

Ur­ban Peak has hired a new CEO, Christina Carl­son, who is sched­uled to start July 19. She has a back­ground in fundrais­ing as well as a mas­ter’s de­gree in so­cial work. “We are tak­ing a strate­gic look at pro­grams and see­ing what we need to do to make our­selves sus­tain­able,” An­der­son said of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which has a bud­get of about $5 mil­lion and 65 em­ploy­ees. “We are also look­ing at what out­comes are and how we can be more ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive.”

For ex­am­ple, to make it eas­ier for shel­ter res­i­dents to ac­cess of­fer­ings like GED prepa­ra­tion, Ur­ban Peak is mov­ing ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams from The Spot to its shel­ter at 1630 S. Acoma in the next month, said Clay­ton Gon­za­les, as­sis­tant pro­grams di­rec­tor. “We will be able to get more kids through the pro­gram that way rather than them hav­ing to come down­town,” he said.

Start­ing with the ba­sics

Youths find their way to Ur­ban Peak in a va­ri­ety of ways. All have lim­ited fi­nan­cial re­sources. Many are vic­tims of abuse and/or ne­glect; prob­lems with drugs and al­co­hol are of­ten in­volved, as are brushes with the law; men­tal and emo­tional is­sues and dis­abil­i­ties are com­mon; and they are more likely to iden­tify as LGBT than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Ur­ban Peak staffers use the prin­ci­ples of trauma-in­formed care when work­ing with youths, ac­knowl­edg­ing that trauma af­fects all as­pects of the way a per­son func­tions, in­clud­ing phys­i­cal, men­tal, be­hav­ioral, so­cial, in­tel­lec­tual and spir­i­tual.

They’re peo­ple like Joey Laf­ferty, 21, who moved to Colorado with his fa­ther in July 2016 from Rhode Is­land. Months later, Laf­ferty’s dad aban­doned him. Laf­ferty was left with few pos­ses­sions and no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers. He’s been liv­ing on the streets ever since.

He drifted among the home­less dur­ing the day and would sleep along the South Platte River, but found it dan­ger­ous and noisy. “There was a lot of yelling and drugs and fight­ing,” he said. Laf­ferty suf­fers from de­pres­sion and couldn’t sleep. He also had things stolen from him.

“I thought I was out of luck,” said Laf­ferty, who was wear­ing a New York Yan­kees base­ball cap on a re­cent af­ter­noon at Ur­ban Peak’s of­fices. Af­ter be­ing re­ferred to the or­ga­ni­za­tion, he was as­signed a case worker who helped him lo­cate his birth cer­tifi­cate and get a So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. The next step is to get an ID from the Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles.

You can’t get much in the way of ser­vices with­out such ba­sic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments, so Laf­ferty is hop­ing that once that hap­pens, he’ll be able to get a hous­ing voucher and find a safer place to sleep. Then he will be able to fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion and get­ting a job.

Laf­ferty said he’s grate­ful for the help and hopes to con­tinue re­ceiv­ing ser­vices from Ur­ban Peak. “It’s just got to stay open,” he said with a grav­ity that be­lies his years.

The hous­ing squeeze

Some at­tribute the in­crease in home­less­ness to the high cost of liv­ing in Denver, and that’s in part how Bran­dan Ward, 19, was re­ferred to Ur­ban Peak. He was at­tend­ing Lake­wood High School when his mother could no longer af­ford pay­ing rent on their home. She found a job and lodg­ing in the East­ern Colorado com­mu­nity of Burling­ton, but Bran­dan wanted to con­tinue go­ing to Lake­wood High School. He stayed with friends for awhile be­fore be­ing re­ferred to Ur­ban Peak last fall.

He moved into the Acoma shel­ter in Oc­to­ber. While that shel­ter is a bless­ing for many home­less teens, it wasn’t an easy ex­pe­ri­ence for Ward, who is hear­ing impaired and has Asperger Syn­drome, an autism spec­trum dis­or­der that af­fects com­mu­ni­ca­tion and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. “It was stress­ful be­cause it’s noisy and some­times a crazy place,” he said.

Ward per­se­vered, grad­u­at­ing from high school in May. He earned a spe­cial award for tenac­ity, along with a stand­ing ova­tion dur­ing the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony, ac­cord­ing to his case man­ager, Molly Cor­ri­gan. And bet­ter yet, Ward was able to leave the shel­ter and get into hous­ing at Rowan Gar­dens, an Ur­ban Peak liv­ing com­mu­nity for youths with men­tal, phys­i­cal or de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties. Case man­agers there help res­i­dents get men­tal health ser­vices, coun­sel­ing, life skills train­ing, so­cial­iza­tion and recre­ation as steps to­ward be­ing able to live in­de­pen­dently.

In ad­di­tion to the 40-bed shel­ter and 16 sin­gle-oc­cu­pancy units at Rowan Gar­dens, Ur­ban Peak owns and man­ages two other apart­ment com­plexes and pro­vides youth ser­vices in ad­di­tional liv­ing spa­ces. Also among its real es­tate hold­ings are the build­ings that house its ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices, and The Spot.

Peo­ple like coun­cil­man Brooks hope Ur­ban Peak will keep up its pres­ence near down­town. “They have to do or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally what will help them, but it would be a loss if they left,” he said. “No one serves young peo­ple like they do down­town and in their build­ing on Acoma. I’m a big be­liever in hav­ing scat­tered sites around the city like they do.”

Con­stant fundrais­ing and ap­ply­ing for grants is a re­al­ity of stay­ing alive for en­ter­prises like Ur­ban Peak. Among up­com­ing fundrais­ers is the Ur­ban Nights Fash­ion Show on Aug. 5, the Park Burger Golf Tour­na­ment Aug. 18, and the an­nual Reach for the Peak break­fast on Sept. 14. (For de­tails on all events, click here.)

“Nonprofits go through cy­cles, and we’ve had a cou­ple of hard years,” An­der­son ac­knowl­edged. Only only about 35 per­cent of Ur­ban Peak’s bud­get comes from fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, and she’s glad it’s not higher. Get­ting fed­eral fund­ing is “ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive and not go­ing to get bet­ter,” she said.

Al­li­son McGhee John­son, who has been on the board of Ur­ban Peak for 10 years, is con­fi­dent that the or­ga­ni­za­tion is strong and headed in the right di­rec­tion. “It has done an amaz­ing job of not re­ly­ing too much on gov­ern­ment fund­ing,” which is hard to con­trol, she said. “In­stead, they have in­creased re­liance on in­di­vid­ual donors and con­tin­ued to ex­plore other sources of in­come.”

Vol­un­teers cook break­fast at Ur­ban Peak, a non-profit in down­town Denver, which helps home­less youth, on Oct. 19, 2015.

A sign at Ur­ban Peak, a shel­ter for home­less youth in Denver, urges “ac­cep­tance.”

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