By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
The pale blond teenager listened intently to the younger but more experienced girl. They stood together on a downtown Denver street watching people file by, looking for the proper one.
"Don't ask older people, because they'll stop and give you a lecture," eighteen-year-old Skyler was told. "Don't ask the high-powered yuppie types, because they won't even look at you. You want someone in the middle. That's who will give you money."
Those words from sixteen-year-old Forest were Skyler's first lesson in how to "spange"--beg for spare change. In the six months since she left home--"It was a lot of mental shit" from her mother's boyfriend, she says--Skyler's become quite good at it.
Spanging is her group's main source of income. Not that they need much money. Until recently, about thirty of them were living in an abandoned flour mill in the Platte Valley, a seven-story wreck that Denver's homeless teens had claimed as their own for over a year. Now that building, like many others in lower downtown, is slated for development.
"It's kind of like being kicked out of your home, because that's what we thought of it as," says Skyler. "If you go there, you can see the word `home' carved into places and written on the walls."
The building, known as the Silos to its occupants, was built 74 years ago to house the Pride of the Rockies flour mill. Downtown developer Dana Crawford, one of several people interested in the property, would like to divide the structure into sixteen residential lofts; in the meantime, the city has closed off all access because the building is a fire hazard.
"It was real neat the way they had it set up," says Bill Meacham, who has been homeless more than ten years and watched the kids move into the area. "I don't know why they had to kick them out. They weren't hurting anyone."
Not then, they weren't. But the Silos' closing sent the group moving down through the Platte Valley, fighting with other homeless for whatever space is available. The boom in LoDo housing, coupled with shelters that are reaching capacity, have made secure doorways and bridge overhangs scarce commodities.
The homeless teens now have a new "squat" near Confluence Park that sleeps about thirteen people. There's room for only the inner circle to spend the night; others in the group may hang out during the day, but they don't have sleeping privileges. "We knew about the place before they did," says eighteen-year-old Duzo. "But they claimed it." He and his friend Paco, nineteen, usually sleep under bridges in Confluence Park.
The location of the squat is carefully guarded, and outsiders who get too close may find themselves dodging rocks. "We ran out the druggies and the drunks," says fifteen-year-old Psycho, who has been homeless on and off since the age of eight. "We don't want anyone messing with our stuff."
And they're willing to do battle to protect their territory. One local businessman says he saw several of the kids stoning an elderly man who had lived in the area they now claim as their own.
A woman who has walked her dog along Cherry Creek for years says the harmless homeless people she'd grown accustomed to seeing have been replaced by young, pimply, angry ones. "I saw one crawl out of this box and take a dump," she remembers. "I turned my head to give him a little privacy, and then he put his backpack on like he was going off to work."
Even other homeless people remark on the change. "You got a rougher element of kids," says Meacham. "They tear up stuff for no reason. They'll run through the 16th Street Mall at night ripping flowers out of their pots. There's no reason for that.
"I grew up in the Sixties, and my parents thought my music was weird, but these kids are really strange," he adds. "One girl paints her face white and puts on black lipstick."
While the kids ran off some homeless people, others, like Angel, were welcomed. The woman had lived with her boyfriend and three-year-old daughter under a bridge for two months before the new kids arrived.
Her daughter was recently sent to live with an out-of-state relative, and Angel has moved into the squat. "I don't think I'd make it out here without these kids," she says.
When Angel's boyfriend ended up in jail, the kids looked after her. When ten-year-old Half-Pint showed up, Psycho made sure he didn't fall prey to pedophiles and even helped him contact his aunt. And the four pregnant women in the group get preferential treatment. "The pregnant women always eat first," Angel says.
She, Psycho and sixteen-year-old Dizzy have just woken up at the squat. They're going out for coffee. Angel, the only one with any money, is buying.
"If one of us has something, the others share," Angel says. "We're like one big happy family."
It's a family with high turnover. Mike, fifteen, has been around for about two years. "None of the people I knew when I first came out are around anymore," he says.