Bryan Scheferkort left behind a hundred bad memories on the streets of Denver, but he can't shake one image that will always remind him of the year he spent without a home.
One night last spring, at about 2 a.m., he and three friends were smoking pot under the 20th Street bridge--a dry, secluded place where he often spent the night--when one of the teens, a girl from El Paso named Kelly, announced she was going to jump into the Platte River.
No one believed her, since she was sky-high on speed. But then she suddenly plunged into the churning water, arms flailing against the strong current.
Bryan and the others laughed at the stunt and waited for Kelly to come back up.
Five minutes passed. She didn't surface.
Kelly's boyfriend dove into the frigid water but couldn't find her. The teens got spooked and left.
A few hours later, after the sun had risen, they returned to the bridge and found their friend, limp and lifeless, snagged on a piece of riverside trash.
"She was just dangling there," Bryan recalls. "Just dangling."
That was eight months ago. Brian is nineteen now and off the streets. He's one of the lucky ones, and he knows it.
In September Bryan moved into an apartment complex near the University of Denver owned and operated by Urban Peak, an agency dedicated to helping wayward youths. At the red-and-white-brick building at 2485 South York Street, he and sixteen other formerly homeless teens are working toward self-sufficiency.
The complex was bought last July with $1 million in private grants and housing funds and recently renovated for its new tenants, who all underwent extensive interviews and evaluations before they were accepted. Under Urban Peak's guidelines, teens pay one-third of the $480-a-month rent, and as long as they continue with counseling, health care, GED programs, job training or school, they can lease their one-bedroom furnished apartments for a year, or however long it takes to get back on their feet.
The project is the first of its kind in Denver, the only permanent shelter for homeless teens, and it was desperately needed, says Roxane White, Urban Peak's executive director. Each night over 400 teens roam the streets of Denver. Some wind up crashing with friends, a few rent motel rooms, some sleep at homeless shelters. But as often as not, like their adult counterparts, they are forced to bed down where they can--outside.
Of the estimated 5,700 street people in the metro area, about one-third are turned away from emergency shelters because there aren't enough beds, a national study recently found. And last year, as temperatures regularly dropped below zero, more than sixty homeless men and women died.
Teens have it particularly rough, White says. They're scared, angry and confused and feel cut off from traditional support systems. Most are running from physical or sexual abuse at home. Many have drug or alcohol problems. Almost all distrust adults, authority figures and institutions. And since adult shelters cannot accept youths under eighteen without their parents present, many homeless teens slip through the cracks.
Until recently, they sought refuge in abandoned warehouses and dilapidated buildings in and around lower downtown. In particular, they claimed a deserted flour mill dubbed the Silos. There, in the spooky and unstable concrete and steel building, teens found a sanctuary. But last year the mill was bought by a developer and transformed into exclusive lofts--Dana Crawford's Flour Mill Lofts project made the front page of the New York Times last week--and the kids who'd stayed there were pushed further underground.
Bryan was among them. He describes himself as an Army brat, born in Kentucky, the older of two children who settled with their parents in Aurora when he was twelve.
As long as he can remember, he's been angry. "Angry at everyone and everything," Bryan says. "Just pissed off. It didn't matter who or what. I was just pissed off."
At age sixteen, Bryan was arrested for pummeling three youths with a baseball bat. They were gang members who had doused him with lighter fluid and tried to set him on fire, he claimed, and he was simply defending himself. But authorities thought otherwise, and Bryan was sentenced to five years at a youth detention center. He was released after two years on good behavior.
He then joined the Army but was discharged after a few months for medical reasons and for doing "amazing amounts of acid," Bryan says. He returned to Denver and tried to move back home, but his parents told him no. So he stayed with friends for a time, but he eventually found himself wandering toward downtown with a backpack containing his only possessions: a T-shirt or two, a few pairs of jeans, some books.
He describes those days as one blur: Waking up at noon and straggling toward the 16th Street Mall or Capitol Hill, where he hung around with friends, bummed change from passersby, scrounged meals, got high, waited for the sun to set, tried to find a place to sleep.
People who passed him on the sidewalk looked down on him as if he were dirt. Some sneered, others ignored him, one person spit on his friend. A few told him to get a job. And Bryan tried, at "practically every restaurant in Colorado." But without his ID, which had been stolen, he couldn't fill out applications, tax forms or proof-of-citizenship papers. And then there was his appearance, which reflected the rough circumstances under which he lived.
"They want you to conform to a standard," Bryan says. "They all want you to be blond and 6-1, stocky and have a style. If you're not, forget it. It all boils down to this: Either they just don't care, or they don't like you."
Frustrated and resentful, Bryan bubbled with anger. Sometimes all it took to explode was the sight of a yuppie couple sipping cappuccino and eating croissants outside a cafe on Larimer Square. Bryan screamed profanities at them.
"It's like they're letting everyone know they're making it," he says. "Like they want you to know they're better than you. People think they have it hard because they have to pay bills and stuff. They have no idea what hard means. They've got it good."
And then there were the police. Always the police. If Bryan and his friends weren't ticketed for littering, they were being rousted for loitering and arrested for violating curfew. He once was cited for flicking away a cigarette butt.
"It was stupid, dude," he says. "A cigarette butt is no reason to get a ticket. They'd just look for anything."
But it was hunger that finally brought Bryan back from the streets. At one point he went three weeks without a real meal, surviving mainly on sunflower seeds, candy bars and other snacks he stole while wandering the aisles at grocery stores. Some hungry teens deliberately broke windows so they'd be thrown in jail, where they'd get a bunk to sleep on and a sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Bryan never did that. But he came close.
"There's a difference between your stomach growling because you're hungry and your body eating muscle because you're hungry," he says. "You're tired all the time, you're weak and you're puking. You literally get sick of being hungry."
When he straggled into the offices of Urban Peak in April, Bryan, who stands 6-3 and once weighed 210 pounds, now tipped the scale at 157 pounds. "He got the message," White says. "He realized he could die out there."
These days Bryan spends most of his time in his apartment, which is decorated with Christmas lights, yellow "Caution" tape and posters of his favorite band, Metallica. CDs clutter the floor, ashtrays spill their contents over the tabletop, and a Campbell's soup can stands open on the kitchen counter. To him, it's home.
Bryan's struggle is far from over. He's still working on his anger and frustration, but he's also looking for a job, completing his GED and doing what he can to stay two steps up from the streets. And for the first time in a long time, he feels good about his future.
"My goal is to get completely away from the Peak and the rest of Colorado," he says. "Next year I want to be in New Mexico. Out in the middle of nowhere, so no one can bother me."
And he just might make it, White says. Bryan has worked that hard. As soon as his apartment is empty, though, another teen will take his place.