On a cold January night in Colorado Springs nearly 100 young people ages 18-24 were counted as homeless during the 2015 Point in Time survey. About three-fourths of them were found in shelters and transitional housing, while the rest were without shelter altogether. And the numbers were probably much higher; teens are harder to count because they tend to hide their homelessness.
On that particular night, 20 teenagers occupied all the beds at Urban Peak’s Colorado Springs location. Urban Peak is the only licensed youth shelter in Colorado Springs where kids between 15 and 20 years old find a warm and safe place — instead of spending the night on the streets.
Shawna Kemppainen, Urban Peak Colorado Springs executive director, said their street outreach team has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of youth they work with in recent years. That means 445 young persons between 15 and 25 were engaged by Urban Peak workers on the streets and in the parks throughout Colorado Springs.
The organization has more staff this year, Kemppainen said.
“But what they said is that they simply saw more youth out there,” she said. “We also saw more homeless youth from elsewhere.”
About 143 youth used the shelter during the 2014-2015 winter season, about the same number as the year before, but say teenagers were turned away 154 times because there was no room at the shelter. Kids between the ages 15-17 are never turned away, Kemppainen said.
“We can refer them and do help,” she added.
The expectation is the shelter will be full every night during the frigid winter months, and Kemppainen is always looking for assistance to meet the teens’ needs — blankets, sheets, warm clothes.
Having the resources necessary to field the street outreach is one way to help homeless youth — and it makes a difference. About 90 of the teenagers engaged by the street teams were able to get shelter, housing or were reunited with family.
Street team members are trained volunteers and case management staff known for their easily identified red backpacks. The teams seek homeless and runaway youth in Old Colorado City, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs. Besides providing for immediate needs like socks, water, snacks and hygiene items, the teams build relationships so teenagers know they have a place to go for help.
So far in 2015, Urban Peak has helped 528 runaway and homeless young people with a variety of services — including shelter, education, employment and housing.
Half the youth who go through the organization’s programs go on to find a safe, stable environment. Much of that stability can be attributed to the relationships established between youth and the staff at Urban Peak.
Building relationships and trust even when the youth might not like what’s happening — such as being held accountable — is important.
Many who cross Urban Peak’s path have no reason to trust adults, so consistency is the key to a strong relationship that ultimately helps homeless young people stabilize their situations, she said.
“They know no matter what they do we will not go out of relationship with them. We will not turn our backs on them,” Kemppainen said. “We have a lot more youth coming to us. Even if they are not staying at the shelter, we are connecting with them.”
Keeping kids from sleeping on the streets is important, and the shelter aspect of what Urban Peak does will always be a vital component of the work. But the nonprofit does more than just provide beds for teenagers. It also helps them obtain a GED, continue high school and post-secondary education or go through job readiness training. This year, 54 teenagers have jobs, and through apartment programs, 40 young people were able to find housing.
“We can help them get back on their feet instead of turning into homeless adults in a long-term, chronic way,” Kemppainen said.
It’s vital to start early. Working with displaced youth is much less expensive than dealing with homeless adults. The annual cost for working with a single homeless adult totals about $57,000 while housing, utilities, case management and support for one teenager through Urban Peak is around $14,000 a year.
Space for kids is always in high demand, as are things like socks, hats, shirts and underwear in adult sizes. The organization needs bus passes and gift cards to large discount stores, and volunteers to help with GED classes, job readiness or budget planning.
The group offers training for volunteers and works with other nonprofits for job training and housing needs.