Staff columnist

World of homeless youths hits home

Column by Ann Macari Healey
Posted
Ann Macari Healey

From the apartment balcony, in the hours just past midnight, he could see beams of light from patrol cars cutting through the blackness in the grassy area near Denver Skate Park.

Cops looking for the homeless, he guessed.

A few hours later, as the day began to awaken, Nick Santulli, 18, and his two companions left their friend's apartment to burn some time near downtown Denver before heading back to their suburban Castle Rock homes. A young man and his friends, their shirts stained with dirt, bulging backpacks on their shoulders, passed them on the sidewalk.

"You guys want to come get some breakfast?" the young man asked.

Without hesitation, a curious Nick said OK.

A chance encounter. A risk taken. A turning point.

The simple yes would build a bridge between two vastly different worlds and, in the end, make a difference in both.

"It was the defining moment of my senior year," Nick said. "It's not necessarily changed my life, but it's altered my life and how I see things and the kind of direction in which I want to live my life."

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On that early July morning, they caught a bus, then the light rail. A 30-minute trip to a brick building near the 16th Street Mall. A line of young people waited to step inside, where another 100 or so ate breakfast burritos in the kitchen or clustered in the lobby, seeking the simple comforts of food, sanctuary and fellowship.

The sight of so many girls and boys in their teens and early 20s without a place to call home or a family to care for them struck Nick hard. As he sat at a table and ate, he asked questions and listened. Intently.

A boy told him how he and his mother, although she was no longer in his life, had been on and off the streets for most of his 17 years. Another young man recounted how he'd jumped from foster home to foster home, from friend's couch to friend's couch, finally, to the street.

It was, Nick thought, the tales of heartrending movies and songs.

When he returned home later that day, just 30 miles south yet so very far away, he brought their stories with him.

"You wouldn't guess where I ate breakfast this morning," Nick said to his mom. "A homeless shelter."

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Urban Peak. It is the only nonprofit that offers a full convergence of services to homeless youths in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas. Last year, it helped 1,700 youths from 15 through 24 years of age, providing food, clothing, GED instruction and a multitude of other educational, mental health and job services. Its drop-in center is always busy, its 40-bed shelter usually full.

A 2013 Denver-area survey found 921 youths on the streets. They are there for all kinds of reasons: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; parents who sell them for drugs and alcohol; mental illness. Some, at 18, have aged out of the foster care system. Others have been kicked out of homes because of their sexual orientation.

The tragedies are staggering.

As Dan Hanley, director of development and public affairs, recently said: "We are the voice of the 1,700 youth who don't have one."

● ● ●

In August, just after the start of the new school year, Nick - a passionate musician and shy transplant from Texas who favors shoulder-length hair and cowboy boots - sat in a circle of students on the floor of his newsmagazine classroom at Castle View High School, sharing highlights from the summer.

As he quietly described his encounter with the homeless, the staff became intrigued. The story inspired a theme for the first issue - "Going Outside the CVHS Bubble" - with Nick writing the main story about homeless teens.

He reached out to Urban Peak, toured the facility, learned about its services. He later explored the grassy space near Denver Skate Park and the 16th Street Mall to find homeless youths to interview.

"It was really hard to approach them," Nick remembered. "I mean, I'm going to high school in Castle Rock and they're on the streets in Denver."

He returned to Denver three times for more interviews to make sure he understood how to tell their stories.

"It was weird at first," Nick said of walking up to strangers to ask such personal questions. But "I would call it a pivotal moment in my life."

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On April 14, the school kicked off Make a Difference Week. More than 1,800 students crowded onto the gym bleachers.

A selection process had winnowed about 10 charities and nonprofit organizations to three finalists, including Urban Peak, nominated by the newsmagazine staff. Students overwhelmingly voted it the recipient of this year's fundraising efforts.

The goal: $15,000, a few thousand more than needed to keep Urban Peak open for a day.

"We want to turn this outside of our walls for one week," student government adviser Bob Sutterer said to the students. "These are people just like you who are also talented, who also have great energy, who need a little bit of help."

Charlie Annerino, a representative from Urban Peak, walked to the middle of the floor. "A lot of times, they (homeless youths) feel like they don't have any support," he told the young audience. "Just looking around at this gym, that's not true at all. ... It is so powerful to see people your age care about this issue and be passionate about doing something."

Mid-week, Annerino, Hanley and three others from the organization spent the day talking to 33 classes about the issue of youth homelessness. By the end of the week, students had raised $12,168.

"It's remarkable," said Chris Weiss, Urban Peak's development manager. "Castle Rock is 30 miles away from the epicenter of homelessness. To raise $12,000 for us is remarkable."

● ● ●

In less than a month, Nick graduates. He is headed to college and a life, he hopes, where he has the opportunity to help others. It is an ambition nurtured by what evolved from a chance encounter with some homeless youths one early summer morning.

"I didn't imagine it would have been the major direction of my senior year," he said. "If I hadn't have done that article and done MAD Week, I probably wouldn't have stayed on track as much. It kept me kind of headed straight, I guess."

Urban Peak, for its part, never imagined the kindness that would surge from a suburban high school in a community so removed from the everyday struggles of the discarded youths it serves.

The connection, Weiss said, makes this world a better place.

Nick wants to do more at Urban Peak in the coming year.

"I'd really like to work in the kitchen," he said.

Where he first saw the reality of wounded humanity.

And where this unfinished story of compassion began.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.