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