The second Urban Nights Fashion Show is a "runway with a reason." The event promises to not only be a great fashion celebration featuring some of Denver's best boutiques and designers (including Project Runway's Mondo Guerra) but to raise a lot of money for Urban Peak, a non-profit organization that provides a wide range of services for youth who are homeless or at risk. In advance of Friday night's festivities, we spoke with both creative director Dahlia Weinstein and Kim Easton, the executive director of Urban Peak, about how fashion can play a role in helping homeless youth.
Westword: Talk to us about Urban Peak. What is it and why is it important?
Kim Easton: Urban Peak is important in Denver because we have a crisis of youth experiencing homelessness. We served over 2,330 individuals in the last year. The need is extensive, and at Urban Peak we provide in one location a whole convergence of services that put the youth at the center and asks, "What do you need to move forward, to be successful?" It can be something small, a birth certificate or driver's license -- things that are key to getting job or going back to school so they can begin to heal from the trauma they have experienced.
There are a lot of stereotypes out there about how young people become homeless. What are some of the significant factors?
Easton: Some key points are trauma; every youth and young adult has experienced some type of extreme trauma, whether being removed from home because of substance abuse or jailing of a parent. There is physical, mental or sexual abuse, or you were kicked out of the house because you have come out of the closet. Aging out of the foster system and moved around: We had a young man who had sixteen placements between the ages of three and seventeen; he had no skills, no role models. A number of the youth don't fit the stereotype of 'don't want to work or get a job and want to sit around and smoke pot' -- that is a small portion of youth.
We have folks who sleep on the street and come in to have breakfast, take a shower and go to work. Their tenacity is incredible. We have a number of youth trying to escape the sex trade who were placed there by their parents. We do have kids coming to us who you wouldn't think would need our services, typically surrounding gender identity. They are also here because choices are made that impacted their lives: parents' drug and mental- health issues, not accepting their gender identity or not having the capacity to get them into the foster-care system. We are a trauma-informed organization. We meet each youth coming through the door with, "What is your story"? and "How can we can help you?", versus one with brokenness and "What's wrong with you?
What types of programs does Urban Peak offer?
Easton: One of our key services is outreach. We have an outreach team that is on the street to meet them where they are and provide on-the-spot services, build a relationship. At our drop-in center, they can come in the morning for a hot meal, breakfast, do laundry meet with counselors, get IDs, use the phone and internet. It's a safe place to be for a few hours.
We offer life skills classes and coaching; they are assigned to a case manager to help build a plan. Our forty-bed overnight shelter serves 15-to-21-year-olds, and we take up to fifty in inclement weather. If they are with us for more than 24 hours, they are assigned to a case manager. For minors the best choice is reunification; we will help with that as long as it's a safe situation. Our medical clinics, both downtown and at the shelter, connect them with services: behavioral health or physical or both. They won't typically share that until they have a trust relationship.
Employment education services, jobs and help with the GED; we also help them get enrolled in trade school or community college. We try to help them navigate financial aid and additional paper work; we do what a parent would normally do. From job readiness to employment searches, people on our staff work specifically with employers to make sure they will give them a shot. They don't have the connections -- many don't even have a role model to know what it's like to get up every day and be responsible; they are learning what it means to be a good employee. We have three apartment buildings where we provide supportive housing and an additional sixty housing units scattered in the community; each has a different touch point in meeting the needs of individual.
Dahlia, how did you get connected with Urban Nights?
Dahlia Weinstein: Bradley Joseph, who owns a local marketing company, is the cousin of Justin Joseph, who is a part of the Joseph Family Foundation; his family owns the foundation. Justin came up with the idea after seeing fashion week in Omaha -- it was a huge ,spectacular show and he thought Denver didn't have anything like that. Bradley told him that he "should meet my friend Dahlia who was in the fashion business and she can give you some direction." He was committed to this company in Omaha, and had already given them the check. When we finished with coffee he changed his mind and went with me. He also wanted to bring in outside designers and I asked why we wouldn't use local talent? I guess I had a good sell!
Dahlia, as the show's producer/creative director, what is your vision for Urban Nights 2014?
Weinstein: My vision is to show the individuality of the designer and the boutiques. I like the fact that they are all different. A lot of shows try to keep everything similar -- aesthetic, designers -- but I like different. There are really spectacular lingerie and evening-wear segments, and we have a men's underwear segment, which are from a designer out of Boulder named Baskit. And, of course, Mondo is doing a collection specifically for the event based on the art work done by the kids of Urban Peak -- and the art will also be for sale. We will have pop-up shops for viewers who will typically go and have a few cocktails and decided they want to see the gown again and can't remember the designer, so they will be able to find it in the pop-up shop.
Keep reading for more on Urban Nights. What is with the 200-foot runway!?
Weinstein: Well, that's a good question! I'm a little panicked about it. Timing is an issue; you want it full and entertaining at all times. The reason to extend the runway was to allow more runway seats and, of course, to raise more money for Urban Peak. My models are going to kill me!
What are your thoughts on the state of the fashion community in Denver?
Weinstein: I feel like a lot of people are not aware of how many local designers and independent boutiques we have that try to sell names we are not familiar with. There is a lot talent out there, and Denver is ready for the next step. Look at Cherry Creek North: We like to have the names and labels, but it also nice to have the individual boutiques that sell hard-to-find pieces and not just mass-produced items.
I also feel like Mondo, who is joining our show, is becoming such a fashion icon; he has such a personality and says so many positive things about Denver. I love the fact that he has not packed up and moved to New York. He respects his roots; he wants to stay and do things in Denver. I respect that: He wants to stay here to make sure Denver has a good name.
Easton It's not my space! What is really fun is that people really care about this stuff! I don't even know much about fashion outside of Denver. They get to learn about us and we get to learn about fashion!
Kim, why is the Urban Nights event so important to Urban Peak?
Easton It's important because it brings resources to the organization. We rely 100 percent on donations, grants and government grants. Even more so, being hosted by the Joseph Family Foundation has brought a whole new audience to the table that had no idea about this crisis and how it impacts the community as a whole, not just the individual. It's changing the image of the person they are seeing on the 16th Street Mall. Helping them see the reality with a new set of eyes and ears is critical to our success.
Dahlia, why should people attend the Urban Nights event?
Weinstein: Well, it's a massive show and it's a lot of fun in my opinion. The music is great, the models are professionals from Wilhelmina and Donna Baldwin. There will be an art auction, cocktails, socializing. it raises a lot of money for Urban Peak, and Charice from Glee performs after the show.
Kim, what can people do if they want to get involved with Urban Peak?
Easton: There are different levels of getting involved, including paying attention to what is on our wish list that goes directly to the youth: socks, toiletries, winter coats, things they need right away. It can be as simple as making an in-kind donation or a monetary donation. There are a lot of volunteer opportunities: signing up to serve a meal or ongoing meal service. Companies will organize a team and rotate a team every month. The stability of ongoing partners is fantastic; if the staff is serving meals, it takes away from their ability to provide service. We have volunteers who help with the GED, job readiness and mock interviews. The youth we serve don't have consistent go-to people in their lives. We have folks who come in and do yoga classes and art classes -- but it is really about coming in and being a positive presence.
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The Urban Nights Fashion Show is set for Friday, August 1 at Mile High Station. The VIP party and silent auction begin at 6 p.m.; general admission is at 7 p.m. with the program and fashion show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $75 general admission, $125 premium and $250 VIP. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to urbannightsdenver.org.