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.
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.
Most kids speak highly of Urban Peak. "They're here to help us," says nineteen-year-old Gumby, who has lived for two years on Denver's streets. "They're pretty nice."
Other teens, however, speak bitterly about Urban Peak, either because they have spent the allotted thirty nights at the shelter and can't go back for ninety days, or because they were kicked out for a problem behavior like fighting.
"The whole philosophy of Urban Peak is to help the youth get off the street, not maintain a street life," says Schwartz. "If they come in and they're entrenched in the street culture and the motivation isn't there, we try to get them to look at the life realistically. The most we can do is try to keep them safe until they get motivated."
But in the meantime, those streets can be mean. Although Del Maxfield, executive director of the Denver Rescue Mission, attributes the situation to "a mild turf war," he adds, "I don't think it's a matter of youth displacing the older homeless. It would be pretty difficult to displace some of these guys. They've been through more than these young people can imagine."
Although she's only 25, Angel serves as a parental figure to many of the homeless teens. "I consider myself Mom to about forty kids," she says.
For some, she's the only mom they've known.
Among these kids, stories about abusive stepparents and drunken mothers and fathers are practically the rule. "Anyone can become a parent," says Savage. "Just look at mine. I was raised to believe I was a waste of space."
Savage, dressed in a leather jacket, ripped jeans and two-weeks-unwashed socks, says he's not used to having as many friends as he's found in Denver. He often sits apart from the others. "I feel different," he says. "These are my friends. It's just that I'm used to being alone. Sometimes I feel like I have too many friends."
He grew up in Texas with his parents, who often lived on the streets. "We were always going in and out of houses," he says.
He doesn't know where his parents are now and doesn't really care. It's difficult for him to talk about his childhood. But after several conversations Savage decides to share something. The eighteen-year-old peels off his coat and shirt, revealing dozens of discolored burn patches on his back.
"Doctors have told me it will never go away," he says. "I remember it happening like it was yesterday. I was twelve. I was playing with my Hot Wheels and having a pretty good time. My mother stepped on my foot. The next thing I know, I'm getting hot grease poured on me. She was yelling at me to stay out of her way."
Sometimes he'll tell a newcomer to go back home. "If I had a home and half-way good parents, that's where I'd be," he says.
But many of them don't have homes to go back to. One eighteen-year-old says most of the children in his family are victims of sexual molestation. "I don't know why my mom wouldn't recognize what was going on," he adds. "She's not bad--she just wouldn't deal with this."
Gumby spent most of his childhood locked in his room. "They were just very strict, and that's how they dealt with things," he says of his parents.
Parents addicted to drugs and alcohol are the most common reasons children flee. "I talk to my mom, but my dad hates me," says Forest. "He drinks all the time."
"In many of these cases, I can't say these kids really screwed up for going out on the streets," says Urban Peak's Schwartz. "This whole society needs to take a hard look before they blame these kids for being homeless. In most cases, they left a worse situation than what they're living on the streets."
At noon one recent weekday, the dozen or so homeless youths who normally crowd Skyline Park haven't shown up yet. Only Savage ambles near the bus stop. "I've been up all night just walking around," he says. "It was a wild night--everyone was tripping."
Lack of money doesn't squelch the pervasiveness of drugs in this crowd. "When there's a will, there's a way," one young girl says.
Marijuana is common, acid is talked about frequently and a couple of youths show the marks of needle tracks.
At 1:30 p.m. three teenage boys arrive fresh from the noon feeding at Urban Peak. "I pigged out, but I'll take some of these," says Toad, eighteen, as he reaches for Savage's fries.
A half hour later a dark-haired teenager shows up with a box of fried chicken and sets it on a step. Soon ten teens are eating chicken. Not one asks where the food came from.
It's a typical day at Skyline. They bum cigarettes off one another. Some go off to spange, about six play Hackey Sack, but most just sit around and talk. Tonight they'll go to a club downtown where the sympathetic owner lets them hang out in the back room and play pool without spending money. He also lets them tag on the back walls.
On cold days, they'll crowd in right when the place opens at 4 p.m.
Right now, fifteen-year-old Mike is running his hands through his long mohawk and trying to remember the last time he dreamed about the future.
"I wanted to be an astronaut," Mike says. "About five years ago."
Today Mike is a two-year veteran of downtown Denver street life. He often directs new kids to the regular food-handout spots, the restrooms where they will be tolerated and places that may afford them a night's rest.
He's tried going home a few times. But his mother's boyfriend is on a perpetually short fuse. The last time he tried to return, about eight months ago, the man tried to rip the rings from his pierced eyebrow, tongue and ear.
"I talk to my mom probably once a month," Mike says. "She says I should come home. But we both know I can't."
Like that of many of his companions now, Mike's ambition doesn't go much further than the day's meal. He doesn't spange often because he says people tend to be less giving with young male homeless. Occasionally, if he happens to run into this one guy, he'll camp out for concert tickets and make $10 or $15.
"I don't need money, because I can get food for free," he says.
Neither Mike nor any of the other school-aged homeless in his group attends school; few express any plans of returning. But most think about taking the GED, and some have already done so.
But that doesn't mean they're ready to rejoin the "real" world. "Look, I'm a yuppie," one young man says as he grasps an imaginary briefcase, puts a stern look on his face and gets in step behind a man in his mid-thirties wearing a gray overcoat and dark suit.
The half-dozen youths who witness the performance laugh.
Still, others are making plans to move up--and out. Duzo and Paco say in five years they plan to be millionaires. Lately they're spending their days at Ready Men Labor, where they earn $24 a day. "I'm going to go to college and get in a good field," Paco says. "I'm waiting for my financial aid to come in. I know I'm not going to be here in five years."
Both realize they wasted the summer on the streets. Now they're waiting to get their Peak night privileges back, and then, they say, they'll be able to get their lives on track. "It's difficult when you're sleeping outside to show up at a job clean," Paco says. "It's also expensive, because you have to buy ready-to-eat foods."
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Paco used to work for his cousins selling drugs. "It's too high-risk," he says. "I could be doing it right now."
Duzo says they haven't sold drugs in about a month.
While Duzo and Paco have a plan, most who want off the streets aren't sure how to start. "My goal before I die is to have a book published," Skyler says. "I hope I can do it."
Over the past six months she's seen several of her friends get out. "Sometimes you won't see someone for a couple of months, then they come back and they're so happy because they got a job and a place," she says. "That is so cool. You just hope and think that that will be me someday."
In the meantime, her address is Skyline Park, the squat and the streets of downtown Denver, says Skyler. "I think the reason I stay down here is because it's the only place I can really call home.