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Building for the Future

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On any given night, local social workers say, several hundred homeless teenagers roam Denver streets. Most are white--chronic runaways, high-school dropouts from the metropolitan area. They've left behind physical, sexual and emotional abuse, alcoholic and drug-addicted parents, broken families and fractured homes. Where they're headed, most don't have a clue. But for a time, many landed at the abandoned flour mill, a haven that the homeless teens called the Silos.

Agencies such as Denver's Urban Peak try to cast nets wide enough to keep most homeless teens from bedding down under a bridge, but there are always kids with drug habits, arrest records or independent streaks who prefer to make their own way. These teens chose the old mill.

By most accounts, the Silos was not a place where gangs gathered--unless you count some skinheads. It wasn't a crack house or a methamphetamine lab, either. Sure, there were drugs--plenty of them--along with fighting, vandalism and theft. Even among the kids who stayed there, few are sorry to see it go.

Still, during the winter, the old mill became not only a refuge of last resort, but for some almost a clubhouse.

It was roomy, dry, and far from police, parents and anyone else who might come looking. There were empty storage rooms and concrete floors where teens could build bonfires and hunker down, as well as huge blank walls for taggers and graffiti artists. If they wanted to, street kids could hide there for days. Or months.

She stayed at the Silos her first week on the Denver streets. She was thirteen. A friend took her to the old mill.

It was scary, in the middle of nowhere and really dark. When she arrived, a cluster of ten kids and five adults stood around a bonfire, watching her.

She thought they were going to kick her out, but they didn't. For six months straight, and then off and on for two years, she stayed at the Silos.

This was before she got her GED, signed up for the Job Corps and dropped her street name.

Gina is eighteen now and telling this story over the phone. Her voice is raspy, like she has a cold or smokes too much.

Sometimes she went to the Silos alone, sometimes with friends. Everyone watched over everyone else. Once, when her grandparents came around, the other kids wouldn't let them in. But this was still just a step off the streets, and you had to watch your stuff. She used her backpack as a pillow.

Most kids arrived after 3 a.m., when Muddy's, a former coffeehouse, closed. If they had a joint or a bottle of vodka, they passed it around until everyone got tired.

There were no lights, water or bathroom. If you had to go, you went where you could. Gina walked outside.

She often slept on the fifth floor. It had an elevator door she could drag over the stairwell entrance and tie down with rope to keep others out.

On a wall above the stairs between the third and fourth floors, someone had spray-painted the words, "Home Sweet Home."

Denver police officer Paul Goff: "We used to call it Frankenstein's Loft. Or the Devil's Tower. It was straight out of a Hollywood movie. I always expected to find a body in there. I never went in there alone. When I did go in, I held my breath."

Denver police officer Ann Hughes: "There were rats bigger than you can believe. You could die in there and not be found for a long time."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin: "I can't imagine anyone living there, then or now. There was nothing about it that felt alive."

Denver Deputy Coroner Michelle Weiss-Samaras: "I wish they would just tear it down."

Urban Peak outreach coordinator Kevin Dougherty: "I'm glad it's gone. It's really a sad statement to see kids find attachment with a windowless, hollow building. I'm not sure what it says, but it says something."

The basement walls had satanic markings, the boy remembers. Pentagrams and other symbols written in what looked like dried blood.

"After it rained, you could find bones in the mud big enough to be human," David says. "Police dogs wouldn't go inside, either. They could sense something. What, I don't know. But that's what I heard."

Stories abound: A baby sacrificed by devil worshipers. A maniac living on the third floor and dismembering people. A body beneath the debris in the elevator shaft. A body decaying in the old grain silos. A body under the muck in the basement.

"It was a scary place on its own," he says. "But with the stories, it was worse. A lot of it was fiction, but there were just enough facts to make you afraid."

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Harrison Fletcher