As the recent high-profile case of a former Miss Colorado USA indicates, the problem of homelessness in Denver afflicts all age groups. As the recession has taken its toll, the stereotypical image of the middle-aged man with a shopping cart is increasingly being challenged.
In fact, single youths under the age of 25 constituted 7% of Denver's homeless population of 11,061 in 2009, according to a study (PDF) commissioned by the the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative and the Colorado Department of Human Services.
For over 20 years, Denver's Urban Peak has been focused on exactly that population of indigent youth. The organization started in 1988 as a drop-in center for youth, and has since expanded provide everything from an on-site medical clinic to mentorship programs to educational counsel.
Chris Conner has worked with Urban Peak for four years, first in the education department before becoming an Outreach Case Manager. He is now responsible for making initial contact with homeless youth, providing them with basic needs resources, ensuring that they're aware of the resources Urban Peak offers, and hopefully inspiring them to pursue their dreams.
Prior to joining Urban Peak, Conner worked for New Belgium Brewing, voted by Outside magazine as one of the best companies in America to work for. Despite a positive experience at New Belgium, he says doing outreach at Urban Peak has been the most fulfilling job he's ever had, telling the Huff Post "of all the jobs I’ve had, I feel this job that has given me the most skills, and the greatest ability to impact people."
"One of the things that people often say [about Urban Peak] is that 'you’re youth’s last chance.' That's unfortunately not true," Conner says.
Young people living on the streets--in comparison with many other homeless individuals--have a lot of ways to secure resources and shelter, Conner explains. These options, however, are rarely the safest, healthiest choices available. Urban Peak hopes to make sure Denver's homeless youth are aware of all of their options.
Convincing youth living in the streets to pursue their dreams and interests--whether that means getting a GED, seeking mental health care, or chasing a long-term career goal-- entails a certain amount of inspiration on the part of Urban Peak outreach workers. To that end, Conner says he tries to be a "consistent positive influence" for the youth he works with. That's also why the organization provides resources to help homeless youth find and cultivate their passions.
Conner says the recession has made Urban Peak's already-formidable task more difficult on a number of fronts. As families fall on tough times, they often become unable to support children, who in turn end up on the streets. For example, Conner says he's noticed more community college students living on the streets after their families became unable to support them.
Additionally, Urban Peak has had to cut some of its programs. As Conner explains, the first programs cut tend to be youth engagement services that allow kids living on the streets to discover what they can do with their lives. These cuts make it all the more difficult to inspire them.
"Young people in their formative years... ask questions like 'who do I want to be?' and 'what do I want to become?'... when they’re at leisure. There needs to be some lax time," Conner says.
To help Urban Peak continue to fulfill it's mission of serving homeless youth, Conner suggests visiting the organization's website, or contacting Denver's Road Home, which coordinates the various groups working of homelessness issues.
However, he says that one of the most important things he's learned is that on the job is that simple, seemingly mundane acts of outreach can often be the most effective way to make a difference in peoples' lives.
"Small gestures accumulate into more meaningful things," he says. "As elementary as that sounds, I think people have tremendous power to impact each others' lives every day."