Kyle Phipps plans to spend a lot of time on the 16th Street Mall this holiday season. To the eternal irritation of the mall's overseers, however, he's not going to be dropping much cash at the Pavilions or the Tabor Center.
"I'm going to be doing what I'm doing now -- just chillin'."
Freezing is more like it. It's still a few days before winter officially starts, but the wind's unusually bitter, so he pulls his arms tighter around himself. This time of year, the cold chases many from Skyline Park, but not homeless kids like Kyle, a scrappy eighteen-year-old who seems to be lost inside his winter coat. In the warmer months, the park is a gritty gathering place for homeless teens, runaways, skate punks and various other representatives of alternative youth culture. The assemblage serves as perhaps the only reminder that the 16th Street Mall is not entirely the retail utopia its developers want to pretend it is. Yes, Kyle's been hassled by the cops, but he stays because, the way he sees it, he's among peers, people who understand him.
But at Christmastime, it's lonely. Many kids have scattered. Some have found a warm place to squat for a few weeks -- maybe a friend's apartment, maybe a youth shelter. Others have forged a temporary truce with their parents and moved back home. Still others, tired of what they say has been increased police harassment since the arrest of several homeless youths in connection with assaults and at least one murder of homeless men, have moved on to places unknown. For the ones who remain, this time of year is especially tough.
Christmas brings "an immense amount of depression" for homeless kids, says Roxanne White, executive director of Urban Peak, a homeless outreach organization. She says that most kids are desperate not to spend the time alone and will "try to patch up any type of relationship they have," including going back to unhealthy or abusive relationships, rather than spend the holidays on the street. And the kids who do find themselves at Skyline are "those who truly have nothing. They have the least amount of skills in forming relationships or even a street family," White says.
"It's amazing that they make it through the holiday season at all," adds Dave Kadens, director of Stand Up for Kids, another outreach group.
Kyle, who has just been released from the Boulder County Jail, has been sleeping in the elevator shafts of abandoned downtown buildings. He likes it on the mall during the day, meeting other kids and watching yuppies -- a catch-all term used to describe any person who appears to be in the mainstream of society -- pass by with shopping bags overstuffed with Christmas cheer.
"I envy some of them," Kyle admits. "I wish it could be like this for me. I wish it could be a cheery holiday." But he's happy to let December 25 pass like just another day. "I don't like the memories of Christmas -- they hurt too much. My mom would drink too much. Bad things would happen to me on Christmas."
Kilo, a seventeen-year-old girl with teal-streaked hair and a fleece pullover to match, is a bit more optimistic. She's been on the streets for only three months but can rattle off a list of friends with apartments where she's been crashing during the cold weather. She's even planning on getting some of them Christmas presents as tokens of appreciation. Without a job, however, she hopes to get the money for the presents by "spanging" -- begging for spare change from passersby.
Kilo's Christmas Day plans are up in the air. "If I get back with my ex-boyfriend, we might get to go to his brother's house." Otherwise, she says, "I'm going to be here on the mall, just sitting here." Kilo says her mother kicked her out of the house three months ago and it's unlikely they'll be patching things up for the holidays. "I know that this might sound mean and shit, but fuck my mom." The words are harsh, but her tough-girl posturing is transparent.
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Even when kids are able to patch things up with their families, the reconciliation often lasts only as long as the holiday. Kilo's friend Schitzo has been on and off the streets for a couple of years. This year, like last, he plans to take the bus to Lakewood and visit his mother. "Last year she got me a lot of crappy shirts, a couple of stupid sweaters." But this year she gave him $250, "to get myself together." So far, he's used $50 to stay at a friend's apartment for a few weeks and has found work as a prep cook at the Wazee Supper Club. He'll stay with his mother and stepfather for the two days before Christmas. After that, he says, they want him out.
Although Jay, at 25, is older than most of the kids at Skyline and is no longer homeless, he still feels connected to the kids and does what he can to help them. He's got his own Capitol Hill apartment and, until a recent weeklong stay in the hospital, had a decent job. He sympathizes with Schitzo's situation. "It was extremely hard, because you're in a nice, warm bed, and everything is good for one day. A weight is lifted for one day, and then it's back to the same old, same old."
Jay sometimes lets kids sleep at his place for a night or two -- "but I don't run a crash pad." He's been burned by some supposed friends; while he was in the hospital with a blood clot in his arm, a painful reminder of his drug-using past, he was "cleaned out." Still, he hasn't closed his doors completely.
"It sucks, because a lot of these kids don't know anyone and don't go anywhere," he says. This year he will be visiting his family in Littleton and is going to take along a friend who has nowhere else to go. "A lot of kids are angry and upset at their parents. They have no emotions except for anger. That's gotta suck during Christmas."