By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
But many of them come back. "If you can't be homeless in Denver, you can't be homeless anywhere," says Savage, who grew up homeless with his parents and is now on his own at eighteen.
Several churches hand out sandwiches. Urban Peak, a homeless shelter for people under 21, offers food daily. For those who can't get a space in the squat and haven't used up the thirty nights they're allowed at Urban Peak, the shelter is a warm place to sleep.
"Denver is like a magnet that keeps pulling you back," says Savage, who plans to go to California soon but will return in the summer.
Most of the kids say they're staying for the winter.
"I'm so used to being out in the cold that I get a heat rash when I go inside," Paco says.
In a world where faces change weekly and self-preservation is a daily struggle, this small community is a refuge--a family, its members say. But in many ways it also acts like a gang, although the kids deny it.
"We don't have a leader," Psycho says. "We don't fight other gangs."
But they do have a tag they spray-paint on walls, and there's a fierce loyalty among those who belong. "I would never give up my friends," says Forest. "Fuck that. I would go to jail first."
She and Skyler both start cursing a former member of the group who they say told the cops several of their real names. They don't want their names known. They'd rather be homeless than return to the homes they left.
When stopped by the police, they give fake names. "I have a lot of warrants under my real name," Forest explains. But they call each other by nicknames, too. Skyler got hers when she and a friend were lying outside staring at the sky. "She said, `Skyler,' and I said, `Yeah, cool.'"
Denver Police Department Sergeant Steve Calfee, who patrols the 16th Street Mall, saw more homeless teens this summer than in his past five years on the beat. He says that 30 percent of his ten-officer unit's time is spent handling the youths--serving runaway warrants, writing tickets for loitering and littering, making drug arrests and dealing with complaints from business owners.
"It's basically babysitting them, more or less," he says. "They're more visible and they've become more aggressive with their panhandling."
Skyler says she and Forest can amass $10 to $15 in less than two hours. "That's all we need," she adds. "I don't like taking more than I need."
But panhandling isn't the only issue, according to Calfee. Often when officers confront the teens, the teens fight back. "They start quoting the law," he says. "There's no respect. That's the big difference these days."
Calfee doesn't hide his frustration. "We care about the kids," he says. "It's obviously a complex problem with no easy answer. But I'm really starting to wonder about these shelters. It seems like the more we build, the more of a problem we have."
He remembers one teenager he arrested on a runaway warrant. "She told me she didn't care what happened to her--if she lived or died," he says. "What do you do with someone like that?"
Another police officer who watches the teens at their daily hangout, Skyline Park, off the mall at Arapahoe Street, is considerably less charitable. "They run over here, they run over there," says the officer. "One has a nose ring, and he kind of starts playing with it with his tongue. They'll start picking at each other. It's like they're primates."
And sometimes their behavior is even more primitive. Many of these kids admit to joining in a sport they call "bum-bashing."
"It helps release aggression and pass the time," says one. "If you get them before they go to the liquor store, then you can get some money. It's not much money, though."
This kid, who claims to be a strong believer in karma, says the wails of the elderly and often drunk victims don't bother him. "I know I've got bad karma," he explains. "I'm all fucked up, anyway."
Paco, however, says he doesn't get involved. "It makes me look bad," he explains. "How these guys go out bum-bashing is beyond me. I think that's wrong. I talk to the older guys out here. They help me out. They tell me things. They know what's going on."
Although Calfee says he has heard of bum-bashing, he hasn't handled any cases. "You'll see that they [the older homeless] are bruised or beat up--it's a common thing," he says. "But when you ask them if they want to do anything about it, they say no. There's no way for us to do anything about it unless we know about it."
At Urban Peak, though, they know about the bum-bashing. "We know it's a problem," executive director Jon Schwartz says. "We won't work with them if we find out."
Since it opened in 1988 with five staff members, Urban Peak has gone from seeing 100 homeless teens a year to 1,300. Its budget has nearly doubled, and it now has 28 full-time staffers.