He was terrified. At any moment they could leap forward, press a screwdriver to his throat and mug him -- in front of God and the whole world. In fact, the way they were glowering at him, they could do much worse.
"Hi," Doyle Robinson offered. "How you doin'?"
He was standing on the cold brick steps of a beaten-down park at 16th and Arapahoe streets, surrounded by some of the roughest kids he'd ever seen. Runaways. Gutter punks. Heroin addicts. Devil worshipers. They were all huddled together, studying him, a mass of combat boots, matted hair, pierced body parts and suspicion.
Doyle had come downtown with a church friend from Parker to distribute candy bars, soda pop and personal-hygiene items as part of a Christian inner-city outreach program. But nothing in his twenty years of working with young people had prepared him for this. He didn't do drugs. He didn't like punk. He was just a middle-aged white guy from Arkansas with a mini-van. How could he possibly connect with them?
So he stood there in his nice clothes and his wire-framed glasses and his teddy-bear body, an outcast among outcasts. He handed over his gifts, lingered a while and finally left.
But he came back. Again and again. He was still afraid, still uncomfortable. Yet something about those hard-core street kids struck a chord deep within him. In the faces of the lost and angry children of downtown Denver, Doyle saw himself.
"I was hungry and you made me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me." -- Matthew: 25.
Doyle Robinson recites that passage over and over. It gives him focus, validation. He asks himself: "If Jesus returned to earth in a physical form, where would he go, and what would he do?"
When Skyline Park was dedicated on a drizzly November day in 1976, it was hailed as "a dream within a dream," the crowning achievement of a massive redevelopment project that would remake the face and future of downtown. Using a canyon riverbed as inspiration, noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin envisioned his project as an urban oasis surrounded by benches, shade trees and cafes.
Then the street kids came. They straggled over from Capitol Hill and the Platte Valley, gathering in the recesses of the brick-and-stone rectangle that stretches from 15th to 18th streets along Arapahoe. Near Skyline, they found panhandling opportunities, public restrooms and fast food. In the park, they found temporary shelter from the wind and rain, a semblance of safety.
But merchants complained. Tourists complained. Pedestrians complained. By the early '90s, it seemed all of downtown was complaining that Skyline Park had become a den of drugs, casual theft, litter, petty crimes -- and worse. Police rumbled through on their motorcycles, banishing skateboards, busting junkies and dope dealers, issuing citations for everything from spitting to jaywalking to sitting on the grass.
Opposing forces mobilized behind pointing fingers. Some wanted the park redesigned; others wanted it preserved. Back and forth they went, year after year, proposal after proposal.
And still the street kids came. City officials and downtown boosters didn't understand it, but to the homeless youth, the reason was simple: At Skyline Park, misfits could find each other.
Doyle grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, the second-youngest of six kids. His family was loving, hardworking and devout. They hosted backyard barbecues, went to church on Sundays. It wasn't Norman Rockwell, but it was close.
Still, the Robinsons had their troubles -- particularly Doyle and his dad. No matter how hard they tried, they could never bridge the barrier between them.
Doyle's dad's name was Wilfred, but everyone called him Pee Wee. He was short, wiry, handsome and scrappy, a James Dean type reared in Depression-era Texas. He'd quit school in the sixth grade, sold jackrabbit ears for bounty, and taught himself how to fix anything with gears, switches, motors or sprockets. He fought, cussed, gambled, fished and hunted, even when fishing and hunting were out of season. As a kid, he once climbed a tree and took a dump on the head of his sleeping brother.
Doyle, on the other hand, was clumsy, sensitive and excruciatingly shy, a perennial wallflower who didn't date until he was eighteen. Pee Wee's attempts to bond with his son -- and there were attempts -- almost always ended in disaster. When they went hunting, Doyle sat shivering beside a tree for what seemed like hours while Pee Wee stalked his bucks. When they went fishing, Doyle rocked the boat, disturbed the water, tangled his line and left Pee Wee ranting and raving.
It was different with Doyle's two older brothers. Pee Wee coached their baseball teams, took them water-skiing, horsed around. With Doyle, there was mostly silence.
Although he and his father would later reconcile, Doyle harbors only two happy childhood memories of his dad. Once, when Doyle was a toddler, Pee Wee returned from work, picked him up and smiled. And then, when Doyle was eleven, his dad waved him over to the driveway and told a friend: "Look at this kid. He has great hands." For years afterward, Doyle's hands -- his big, meaty hands -- were the only part of his body he was proud of.
But Doyle has another memory, one etched much deeper than the others. When he was fifteen, he came home and found his mom sobbing on her bed.
"Dad's gone," she said.
Pee Wee was just another 45-year-old struggling through a midlife crisis. But no matter what anyone told him, Doyle thought he knew the truth: His father had abandoned the family because he didn't love his youngest son.
Pills, Doyle decided. He'd do it with pills. He'd swallow painkillers or muscle relaxants, it didn't really matter, then slide behind the wheel of his car and drive until he couldn't drive anymore. He'd drift into oblivion without feeling a thing. And at the time, he didn't want to feel anymore.
He was eighteen years old, a senior in high school only a few months from graduation, but all he knew was despair. Not long after Pee Wee left, his parents had tried to patch things up: Doyle, his little sister and his mom had even moved in with Pee Wee in Oklahoma. But within a month, Doyle had returned to Arkansas.
He bounced from one activity to another, unable to concentrate. He flunked out of schools where his brothers had played football and his sisters scored honor-society grades. He looked in the mirror and saw a lonely and confused screwup who didn't fit in anywhere, with anybody.
People tried to help Doyle. His pastor provided counsel. His brother's coach pulled him aside. An English teacher created a course to help him graduate. His second-oldest brother even took him in. But it wasn't enough.
So now he stood in the front room of his brother's home, scribbling a suicide note. When his brother took his wife out to dinner, Doyle decided the time was right. He placed the note on the table and opened the front door to leave. Right in front of him stood his brother, who'd come home early.
Doyle broke down and told him everything.
Afterward, Doyle marveled at the timing. If his brother had come home as planned, Doyle would have been dead. By chance, by accident, really, his brother saved his life. But then, he thought, maybe it was no accident. Maybe there was a plan for him after all.
About a year later, Doyle was playing basketball at a trailer park where he now lived with his mother and younger sister, grunting through a pick-up game with two younger boys and a handicapped kid he had selected as his teammate.
Game point arrived, and the score was tied.
Doyle had the ball, but instead of taking the shot, he passed to the handicapped kid. He held off their opponents: "Shoot! Shoot!"
The ball arced through the air.
The kid cheered. Doyle cheered. Their opponents cheered.
Here was this handicapped kid who probably hadn't had many victories in life, celebrating like he'd won the NBA title. Then it hit Doyle: Little things can become very big things. In this way, he could make a difference.
Twenty-one jobs in ten years. From age fifteen to age 25, Doyle worked as a department-store clerk, a truck driver, a bellhop, a butcher, a laborer in a chicken-processing plant. Nothing seemed to fit. He knew he wanted to work with teenagers, but he didn't know how.
He'd enrolled at an Arkansas university hoping to become a grammar-school teacher, but he never attended class. He tried Bible college, but he flunked out four times in two years before administrators finally drew the line. He pursued religious studies at a state college in Missouri but never completed his degree.
Doyle drifted from paycheck to paycheck, pulled by an urge he didn't quite understand and encouraged by his wife, Karen, whom he'd married after Bible college.
From the beginning, the job felt right. In church auditoriums and basketball gyms, Doyle found a way to merge his belief in spiritual service with his desire to help wayward youths. And he was good at it. Doyle connected with young people in a way that surprised even him. Eventually he moved to Springfield, Missouri, where his church, the Assembly of God, was headquartered.
Still, he didn't quite fit in. An unorthodox pastor, Doyle measured his success not by the size of his classes, but by the depth of his personal relationships. While colleagues packed in twenty kids per session, Doyle quietly reached out to one kid at a time.
One day a few skate punks rolled into Doyle's gym, where his kids would play ball, sing songs and listen to him talk about such things as celibacy. Later, a few black kids joined in. Members of Doyle's mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly suburban congregation started wondering aloud if their children should be exposed to this "at-risk" element.
Doyle bristled. Where others saw a threat, he saw an opportunity. For most of his career, he'd worked with kids who stayed in school, played sports, had friends. They may have smoked pot or tried sex, but they'd never strayed far from the fold. Doyle, now approaching forty, felt the old unrest beginning to stir.
In 1995, the Assembly of God selected him to be an inner-city missionary. For the next several years, Doyle laid the groundwork for his new assignment. He worked closely with a homeless boy in Springfield. He traveled to places like Colorado and Utah to raise money. He explored St. Louis as a possible location. Finally, in 1998, Doyle selected Denver as the site for his mission.
At a church in Parker, he found a program that worked with homeless youths downtown. One day, he and a colleague decided to visit Skyline Park.
On any given night, several hundred teens wander the streets of Denver. Many are runaways, some are mentally ill, most are fleeing abusive homes and families. They use drugs. They beg. They eat garbage. They are as young as ten years old.
After his first awkward visit to Skyline Park, Doyle felt something he'd never felt before. "It was a burning need to help," he remembers. While his wife and two kids stayed in Springfield, he'd commute to Denver -- one week here, one week there, with a twelve-hour drive between.
He returned to the 16th Street Mall in his white mini-van and passed out tube socks, candy bars and soda pop. Street kids accepted what he had to offer, thanked him and then closed ranks. Doyle would head home feeling like an outsider. Again.
Friends asked why he bothered.
"The opposite of love isn't hate," Doyle would reply. "It's indifference."
On the streets, he'd talk to the underage vagabonds and hear incredible tales of abuse, neglect and abandonment, with two common threads running through all of the stories: broken homes and no fathers. And here he could relate to them. He could understand the pain and despair many of them described.
They are children, he'd tell the skeptics. Confused, violent and drug-addicted, but children just the same. And every day, he watched people walk right past them as if they were dirt. So he gave them what he could: respect, dignity, unconditional love.
In 1999, Doyle moved his family to Parker, and later to Littleton. Slowly but surely, he gained entree with the street kids. He did so by distributing free socks, a badly needed item on the streets. He bought the socks in bulk at discount stores, asked for donations at his church, stuffed backpacks full of them.
One day, Doyle arrived home and announced to his family that he'd finally been accepted.
"I have a street name," he said. "They call me Sox."
The kids adopted Doyle. But sometimes he found their suffering overwhelming.
Doyle wandered among the street kids, knowing that some would not make it. Thirteen runaways die in the United States each day, he told himself. Who would be next to wind up in an unmarked grave, he wondered. Would it be one of his?
Girls were the hardest. He passed by them on the sidewalks, with their skinny legs and their wide eyes and their matted hair, looking like they had been used and abused by every person in their lives. How could anyone turn his back on them?
Doyle touched her shoulder and asked if she needed anything. Food? Socks? Thermal underwear?
The girl smiled sheepishly. Did he have any blue ones? She'd always wanted a pair of blue thermal underwear.
So Doyle went to a discount store, bought some blue thermal underwear and took them back to the girl. When he handed them over, she beamed like a child at Christmastime.
A day later, Doyle returned to the federal building to check on her. She was gone.
Doyle had prayed for sons. When Joshua and Jordan were born -- on April 9, 1979, and April 14, 1983 -- he wept. Today the young men work beside him, sharing his easygoing manner, spiritual commitment and desire to help street kids. Like their father, they have defining memories of their childhood.
When Joshua was four years old, Doyle was working two jobs, working practically around the clock. One night, Joshua waited up for him. He stood in his bed, anticipating the moment Doyle would lumber through the door. When he did, Doyle lifted his son in his arms and squeezed him. And then -- before he ate, before he rested, before he rolled into bed for a catnap between shifts -- Doyle lay on the floor and played with his son.
When Joshua was fifteen, he was arrested for trying to buy whiskey at a gas station. Doyle bailed him out and drove him home. Joshua was overcome with guilt. A pastor's son, he'd hurt his dad. What would people at church think? Doyle told him that he didn't care what they thought. Joshua would be disciplined, guaranteed, but he was his son. Nothing else mattered. They'd work it out.
As a boy, Jordan loved to wrestle with his dad. They'd broken couches with their antics, but still they wrestled. Jordan would elbow Doyle in the stomach, knee him in the groin, leap atop him from the highest object in the house. Doyle never complained once. And he never stopped playing.
When Jordan got to high school, he played rugby. He played football. And at every game, at every practice, there was Doyle, sitting in the stands.
Jordan was seventeen when he first accompanied his father to Skyline Park. They arrived with a load of the trademark tube socks, and Doyle was surrounded. Street kids laughed with him. Joked with him. Hugged him. And Jordan realized something: Doyle wasn't just his dad. He was their dad, too.
Doyle Robinson had become father to the fatherless, the lost children of the 16th Street Mall.
Shannon sits on the sidewalk, trembling. It's mild for a November evening, but she gathers in her parka and hugs her knees. She takes a long drag from her cigarette, exhaling through the side of her mouth. The overhead lamp makes her seem more pale and gaunt than she already is. She could be anywhere from sixteen to thirty.
So, yeah, she says, she first hit the streets around age twelve. Some shit happened with her parents, and she wound up in state custody and later a hospital, where the staff poked and prodded and pried out information and wrote stuff in her file and gave her meds. But they didn't care about her, so she escaped.
Then she wandered around with a few warrants on her head, made friends and experienced her share of freezing nights, ravenous days and life-threatening street moments, like the time she caught pneumonia, left for California and took speed as a cure.
She's not on the streets anymore. Not long ago, she got Section 8 housing after bouncing around with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter from shelters to motels and back again. She heard about Doyle from her baby girl's father, who said she should check out his new drop-in center, Sox Place. She did. And she was surprised. Doyle gave them food and let them watch videos. At closing time, he wasn't like, "Fuck you, leave." He let them gather their stuff and brace themselves for the cold.
Most places aren't like that. A while back, when her baby girl caught the stomach flu and was puking everywhere, one shelter kicked them out onto the streets. Those other programs might have good intentions, but they also have age limits and rules like reporting anyone with warrants. Doyle has boundaries, too -- no drugs, no smoking, no drama -- but if you're cool with him, he's cool with you.
Shannon's daughter loves Doyle. He's like her grandpa. Whenever she sees him, she runs right up to him, because she knows she'll always get a hug. Doyle has love in him, Shannon says. He's not afraid to show it, either. And that's what street kids need most.
She's experienced it personally. He gave her bus fare once without asking her to perform a chore. When it was butt-ass cold outside, he gave her and her daughter a ride. Not only that, but he went out and bought her daughter a sippy cup with a bendy straw, just like she wanted. He didn't have to do that, either. And the other day, when she was having a hard time, he pulled her aside and asked, "Can I pray for you?"
Shannon said yes. And he did.
Doyle found Jesus when he was eleven.
He was at a youth camp in Troy, Texas, sitting in the front row of an outdoor evangelical service, enjoying the "preachin' and the singin'," he remembers. Suddenly he "felt something that demanded a response." So he stood, took the pastor's hand and prayed. Afterward, in his cabin, he described the moment to his hometown pastor, who was attending the camp, too. The pastor jumped up, wrapped his arms around Doyle and cried.
Doyle has believed ever since.
But Doyle will never say that up front. He'll never announce it at Skyline Park, either. In fact, most street kids don't know that he's a missionary and that his drop-in center is actually a church. And that's just the way he wants it.
By the time a teenager becomes homeless, Doyle says, he's probably been lectured to all of his life. Most street kids are condemned on sight by people who have no clue about the abuse and neglect they've suffered; most have also had the Bible shoved down their throats by people supposedly interested in saving them.
If Doyle mentioned Jesus in his first conversation with some homeless kids, their eyes would glaze over. If he told them he was a pastor, their hackles would rise.
Doyle doesn't want the street kids to judge him by what he is but by what he does. He doesn't want to tell them what he believes; he wants to show them. He wants to preach by example. Only if necessary, he'll use words.
"I try to look here," he says, thumping his chest. "In their hearts."
Doyle is a Christian. He's a creationist. And he's more than happy to share his beliefs with anyone who asks -- but he has to be asked. He won't impose his views on anyone. He won't even pray for someone unless he first gets permission. If this raises eyebrows among traditional Christians -- and it does -- then so be it, he says.
He wants nothing more than to help street kids develop a "personal spiritual relationship" with Jesus. When people are ready, they will come, he believes. Homeless youths are hungry for spirituality; he's seen it time and again.
Doyle's watched them fill the void with dope, sex, even Satanism. And it hurts when they reject his beliefs. But that will not stop him from cooking a pot of soup or distributing a pair of socks or letting a pair of wiccans watch Braveheart on the couch.
He is planting seeds, Doyle explains. If the flower blossoms in Denver, that's great. If it doesn't, that's fine, too. His door remains open.
Gutter Boy has lived on the streets since he was thirteen; he's now 31. He wears a brown Mohawk, camouflage pants and a pair of Dr. Martens boots. Tattoos curl up his arms and creep up to his neck. One eyelid reads "too" and the other says "drunk." He's served time, slept among refuse, taken every drug he could swallow, inhale or snort. At Skyline Park, he commands respect.
At the moment, he's sitting on a secondhand couch at Sox Place, staring at a hole in the floor. Doyle has asked him to be the featured speaker at a luncheon for two dozen pastors, businessmen and volunteers. Gutter Boy isn't exactly a "people person," he growls, but if Doyle needs help, he'll do what he can.
And Doyle needs help. In May, after looking at building after building, he opened his drop-in center at 2017 Lawrence Street, in an old auto-repair place. It's an arm of the downtown Assembly of God church, but everyone knows it as Sox Place.
Doyle filled it with used couches, tables and easy chairs, donated food and clothes, a foosball table, Nintendo sets, videos and TVs. Using volunteer labor, he added restrooms, a kitchenette, a makeshift stage for Christian concerts and an office that houses his floor-to-ceiling book collection, "Curly for President" poster and pet ferret, Crackhead.
Problem is, the rent at Sox Place runs $2,500 a month, not counting the heating, which could cost up to $1,200 more a month. December is covered, but January is anyone's guess. Unless Doyle can scrape up a few thousand dollars very soon, he'll be back on the streets distributing tube socks from his mini-van.
But his work is hard to quantify. He can't present spreadsheets to prospective supporters detailing how many people have joined his congregation or how many souls he's saved. He's distributed 2,500 pairs of socks and had more than 2,000 visitors -- he can say that much. But how can he measure the heart-to-heart conversation he had with a boy who shoots heroin eight times a day? How can he calculate the help he gave a girl who tried to kill herself?
Although religious organizations and church members provide most of his donations, they don't always endorse his methods. One church group recently withdrew its funding because it decided Doyle's "parishioners" weren't doing enough to support his ministry financially.
Doyle did the only thing he could: He decided to show them what he was doing.
So on this brisk morning, he's opened the doors of Sox Place. He's set out iced tea and tamales from the La Popular kitchen next door. He's placed pairs of tube socks and photocopies of homeless youths on the tables. And he's asked the street kids to say a few words.
One young woman says that Sox Place is a haven where she and her infant daughter feel safe. A young man says that at Sox Place, he can forget about surviving. Another young man says Doyle reintroduced him to Jesus without ever saying the word "religion."
Finally Gutter Boy speaks, his voice cracking. He doesn't get close to many people, he says, especially emotionally. But in the past year and a half, Doyle has seen him cry more than anyone on earth. Doyle has never lectured. Never judged. Never condemned. And that makes him different from almost every person in Gutter Boy's life.
Doyle has offered him a home, Gutter Boy says. With Joshua and Jordan working beside him, Doyle has offered him a family as well.
And one night not long ago, Gutter Boy even knelt beside Doyle and prayed.
"I'm glad he's here, and I don't want to see him go," Gutter Boy mumbles. "He's my best friend. That's all I have to say."
At Sox Place, a concert rages. It's so loud that a Styrofoam cup buzzes on the concrete floor, so loud that a teenage girl shouts into the face of another teenage girl, who shouts back, "Whaaaaatt?" The singer with Fear Before the March of Flames, a local Christian punk band, growls into the microphone and leaps off the stage into a skinny kid in the audience. Encouraged by the collision, a stocky guy with wild eyes and a buzz cut pushes and shoves and stomps around trying to stir the crowd into a mosh pit.
Doyle retreats to the front room, a safe distance from the amplifiers. He plops down on the floor and begins playing with several rambunctious toddlers. As street kids file outside to smoke, he sends them on their way with a wisecrack and a grin. If he's worried about rent, worried about anything, he doesn't show it. He sits there with his graying hair, graying goatee and wire-framed glasses, acting much younger than his 48 years. Things will work out, he says. They always do.
Doyle and his dad have reconciled. Pee Wee and Doyle's mom even renewed their vows in 1990, with Doyle performing the service. Things are still strained at times, but they've found a way to love each other.
In Denver, Doyle has found his niche among the agencies helping street kids. By offering emotional support and a living-room atmosphere at Sox Place, Doyle has tried to complement the health care, recreation activities, GED courses, job training, overnight shelters and temporary housing offered by Urban Peak, Stand Up for Kids, Dry Bones and The Spot, among others.
"I think the kids really like him," says Matt Wallace, an outreach minister with Dry Bones. "He'll hug them and love them like the father they never knew. And that's something a lot of them are looking for."
The street kids have their own way of showing their appreciation. A while back, two junkies snatched Doyle's cell phone, intending to sell it for drugs. When another junkie saw it, he snatched the phone away and announced: "I'm not going to whip your ass this time, but I'm taking this back to Sox."
"They've got my back," Doyle chuckles. "They really do."
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Dole is also keeping an eye on the proposed redesign of Skyline Park, which is back on track after an earlier deadlock between preservationists and redesign advocates. Last week, an advisory committee reviewed a proposal to keep some original features, including two of three fountains, but to add kiosks, footpaths and a lawn. A final recommendation is expected on December 18.
Whatever happens and wherever the street kids wind up, Doyle knows he'll find them.
After so many years of searching, Doyle is settled now. Content. He's found his calling, his place, among the gutter punks, runaways and misfits. On Thursday, he'll even host a Thanksgiving dinner. With the wayward youths of Denver, Doyle is home.