In the shadow of corporate-owned skyscrapers, a stone’s throw from the bustling 16th Street Mall and the thriving riverfront residential district of “Lodo” adjacent to downtown Denver, Colo., live young street people who go by names like “Crazy Ice” and “Rabbit.”
Some of them ran away from home to escape from an abusive family member. Others lived a transient life until they ran out of money in Denver. Many of them feel the need to hide their identity, but if they stay long enough to earn the trust of their peers, they often get a street name. They also get “Platted”—a baptism of initiation into the street community—in the nearby South Platte River, whose confluence with Cherry Creek in Lodo (short for “Lower Downtown”) used to be a gathering place for Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians in the 1850s.
For Robbie Goldman, co-director of the homeless teen outreach Dry Bones Denver, the Platte and Cherry Creek of today are best described as “bleeding places,” because many of the approximately 3,000 homeless teens and young adults in Denver survive day-to-day along the landmark waterways.
“There are a lot of kids that never make it through the front door of [government or non-profit] programs,” Robbie says.
In 2005, the city created “Denver’s Road Home,” a 10-year plan “to ensure that every man, woman and child has a safe alternative to living life on the streets” through eviction assistance, affordable housing units and street outreach. However, people can fall through the cracks of even the most well-intentioned and successful programs. Robbie and his coworkers talk with them every day. What do you do, for example, when someone feels he has found a more accepting family on the streets than in the “housed” world?
“Paris on the Platte”?
For its final three miles, Cherry Creek parallels busy Speer Boulevard, which was named for the early Denver mayor who hailed the city as “Paris on the Platte.” By day, a flood of walkers, joggers and cyclists populate the trail and submerge signs of the homeless presence, but it’s not difficult to find a stash of blankets here or a hatchet man sticker affixed to a public sign there. (The hatchet man is the symbol of the horrorcore music duo Insane Clown Posse, a favorite of Denver’s homeless teens.) A closer look reveals hiding places just out of plain sight, such as a graffitied drainage pipe that empties into Cherry Creek from the 16th Street Mall.
By night, the creek becomes a different place. A few blocks from the Pepsi Center where the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche play their home games, a stairwell descending from Speer Boulevard to the Cherry Creek Trail becomes a “shooting gallery” where street teens convert ordinary aluminum cans into heroin cookers and add to the “track marks” on their arms by “shooting up” with reused needles. Others share small hits of meth (also known as speed or crystal) in makeshift wrappers, keeping them in their mouths like chewing tobacco so they can take the practical but life-threatening risk of swallowing the evidence if the police show up.
They stash what possessions they have nearby and do what they can to protect each other from the danger of the streets, ensuring that female members of their group sleep in the middle of their makeshift campsite. From their ivy-laced stairwell, they can see inside up-scale apartments where young couples are eating dinner or watching TV. Eventually, they fall sleep beneath a blue spruce, their morning “hit” beside them, their mulch mattress littered with razor blades, cigarette butts and dead cockroaches.
Others squat beneath a nearby bridge, attempting to wring sleep from the night in spite of dripping oil and water and the dust-billowing, teeth-rattling rumble of coal trains crossing three feet overhead.
Morning and night
In the early morning and early evening, when the pull of black tar heroin is strongest, they meet up with 13- to 18-year-old dealers, some of who were essentially trafficked from Central America.
“They’re told, ‘Come here [to the United States], make money, send it home, we’ll give you a place to live,” Robbie says. “Then they’re stuck selling drugs.”
The dealers learn to capitalize on the cash flow of their clients, giving moneystrapped users “shopping lists” of items to steal from nearby retailers in return for drugs. “It’s “Get me a hoodie from this place.’ It’s ‘Steal for me, and I’ll give you what you need.’”
As fast as the dealers are arrested, they reappear on the street, or others appear in their place.
“Our friends, the street kids, and even gang members, are terrified of the dealers,” Robbie says. “[The dealers] get enamored of the power it brings for a drug addict [in his late teens or early 20s] being dependent on a 16-year-old.”
“Well maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him…” (Paul Maclean, played by Brad Pitt, in A River Runs Through It)
Just below Lodo’s popular Skatepark, the mouth of another drainage pipe yawns emptily toward the northeast flowing Platte. A three-minute walk into its miles-long gullet feels like a trip into complete anonymity. That’s why the ‘darkness tunnel’ is a favorite escape for homeless teens, who cling to their pain, their community and their independence, despite the inherent dangers of life on the street.
According to Robbie, who has spent the last nine years serving homeless youth in Denver, “Street life is so addictive. More [so even] than drugs.”
For those looking into street life from the outside, the question is not “Why don’t they change, get a job, get treatment or ask for help?” it’s “Whose job is it to help the people who slip through the cracks?”
“They are our friends”
Robbie and the rest of the Dry Bones Denver team befriend street kids through regular cooking and photography classes, roadside meals during which they regularly feed more than 100 street people, and regular “Bowling Nights.” In collaboration with Joshua Station and its legal clinic, JAMLAC, and others, Dry Bones staff also help their friends find jobs, get treatment or legal aid, and navigate the bureaucracy of social programs.“We try to create ‘us’ environments,” Robbie says. “What we do is not an assembly line…It’s about dignity. They’ll ask ‘What are we having tonight?’ We give them choices…ask them if they want a salad…and we have a reputation for good food.”
When one of their 18-year-old friends was accidentally shot last year, Matt Wallace and Zach Smith of Dry Bones were the only two people to visit him at Denver Health Medical Center. “[Some] police call our friends “savages” and say we’re ‘enabling them’…But we want them to know they’re worth it and that they’re loved…because what Jesus did is get up close.”
Robbie says, “You get a whole new take on power doing this. We follow a ‘power under’ model versus a ‘power over’ model…[The latter is] here’s my rights as a voter and a taxpayer versus ‘power under,’ where your degree, education, diploma, vehicles, money, personal resources [get placed] under and build them up. [True] power is empathy.”
Last summer, Robbie embodied empathy when he went to court with one of his street friends, a 24-year-old man with a 2-year-old daughter. Despite leaving the streets, getting his own place and finding work as a day laborer, Robbie’s friend had to sign his parental rights away.
“He just ran out of time, but he did have the power to put on record that he made his decision for the best interest of his daughter. His lawyer [and] the judge said, ‘You’ve done a great thing here.’ I didn’t have the power to make [his situation] go away. But we met the foster care parents who will adopt his daughter, and I know she will be safe there. He was being the best father he could be, and he loved her so much he gave her away. And [I had] the power to be a friend to him.”
“We never really know day-to-day what will happen,” Robbie says. “[But] we’re called to be ‘salt and light,’ so our job is to go make the world look like and taste like it’s supposed to look and taste.”
Sometimes that means challenging his street friends. If Robbie gets to know a friend well enough, he’ll find a way to ask a question like, “Do realize how many people died so you can smoke [marijuana] today?”
“You just focus on who’s in front of you and give them everything you have. God hasn’t turned his back on them. He’s right here among us.”
Dry Bones Denver periodically conducts walking “Turf Tours” of downtown Denver for interested groups or individuals. For more interviews and stories of street kids or for information on “just showing up and hanging out” with street friends as a volunteer, contact Dry Bones directly.