While most kids this time of year are busy contemplating their impending Yuletide haul, that’s hardly the case for Boulder’s estimated 200 or so teenagers who are living on the streets at any given time. For these kids who are avoiding troubles at home or don’t have a home, the cold is a far more important issue than thinking about what isn’t going to be under their nonexistent tree.
“I don’t even think about that [holidays],” says Seth, a lanky 16-year-old who’s been living on his own on and off for the past four years. “I just want to be in a place that feels safe.”
It’s a simple wish echoed by most of the teens interviewed this week at Attention Homes, Boulder’s residential treatment, counseling and safe shelter for homeless, runaway and otherwise at-risk youth.
While all the young people I spoke with shared the desire for a safe, warm place to pass the long winter nights, the circumstances that had led each to be homeless were as varied as the kids themselves.
For Denise, a 15-year-old who moved to Boulder a few months ago to reunite with her parents, being homeless is a new experience. “I always lived in the same house my whole life in Cleveland. Then we had to move, ’cause we lost our house,” she says. Her parents came to Boulder in hopes that its healthy economy would result in work, but once they were here they discovered that it was simply too expensive to live and they quickly ran out of funds and became homeless themselves. Denise and her three sisters were living with a relative when she decided to take a bus and join her parents in Boulder. Now all three are homeless and stranded. They have a place to stay and a better chance to start over in New Mexico where living isn’t so expensive, but they need to put together the money to get there.
In the mean time, Denise spends her nights at Attention’s shelter while her mom and dad check in each evening at Boulder’s adult homeless facility on North Broadway. It’s hard. Trying to say good night in two shelters a mile apart isn’t like getting tucked in bed in another room. Each morning Denise takes the bus to meet her parents, and then they spend the day together at the library or some other place out of the cold. She says the hardest part for all of them is not having her three sisters with them. “It’s really hard on my mom and dad. They want us all together.”
She’s also struggling with the idea of making friends, knowing that she’s just going to be moving again in the near future. She’s in school thanks to the folks at Attention Homes and has made a couple of friends there, but mostly she hangs out with other kids staying at the shelter. When asked what she would want if she could have anything this holiday season, Denise isn’t greedy.
“Just my own shower and bed,” she says. “I just want to sleep until noon in a bed and when I wake up, say ‘Mine, it’s really mine.’”
While Denise doesn’t have a home, 14-year-old Tina does, but she chooses not to live there.
“It was drugs, violence, chaos all the time,” she says. She describes being physically abused by her father, “beat for things that little kids shouldn’t get hit for.”
She says her father nearly killed her mother, resulting in restraining orders, and eventually he was gone from the family. Her mother, now a single mom, had to work all the time, which meant leaving the kids at home alone.
“We just sort of grew up, raised ourselves on the streets,” she says.
Tina claims to be doing better now that she’s at the shelter. “Better” is measured in terms of living in a place that has heat, no violence and someone to wake her up in the morning and make sure she has something to eat before she goes to school, all things that were missing when she lived at home. Tina’s mom still works but often can’t pay the utility bills. Tina struggled when asked what her wish would be.
“It’s hard, I do have this one dream, but it’s kind of hard to explain,” she says as her voice cracks and she quickly wipes back the uninvited tears. “My whole life I have this thing, where I just want to be good and go back to my family and have it all be OK. But you can’t go back, you can’t change it.”
It’s a hard truth that no 14-year old should know.
Mark, 14, and his sister Callie, 12, ended up homeless in Boulder after fleeing domestic violence and threats of worse in another state. Like Denise’s parents, their mom stays at the adult shelter at night and meets back up with them each morning. Aside from their mom, they describe a life where adults are violent, on meth, threatening and hateful, with a clarity and innocence that makes it all seem like a Disney film gone horribly wrong. Whenever Callie starts to reminisce fondly about their old life — a nice house, a back yard, toys, friends — her brother quickly jumps in to remind her that they came here to create something better. Their fondness for their mother is continuously evident. To hear them tell it, she is the raft floating in a stormy ocean after everything else has sunk to the bottom. We could all learn from their unflappable optimism.
Victor is 17. He’s been shelter hopping for a while now. He doesn’t talk about his past with the detail of his younger peers except to say that his living on his own is a mutual agreement with his parents. He describes a life of divorce and stepparents and bouncing back and forth from one parent to another for most of his teenage years before winding up on the street. He once had a job a Burger King, and between his paycheck and some money from his father, he was able to have an apartment. But that was a while ago. Victor has big dreams, really big dreams.
“You may think I’m crazy,” he says, “but I’m going to run my own hotel and restaurant in Dubai.” Why Dubai? He wants to travel and learn about different cultures.
Being older, Victor has even come up with a plan to achieve his goals, which includes a stint in the Navy. But first he has to pass his GED and get 15 credit hours at community college before the Navy will take him. As with most dreams of young people on the streets, the barriers to Victor achieving his goals are money and education. And in his view, his time may be running out.
“The hardest thing for me is stability. Right now, it’s very hard for me,” he says. “But I just have to work for it, I guess. If I don’t, I may end up on the streets forever. Never getting off the streets is always in the back of my mind. I feel like I’m walking on the edge right now, and one screw-up here or there and I could be on the streets from now on. I turn 18 in two months, so I don’t have much time. I can’t go back home. I have a lot of anxiety about that.”
Attention Homes only takes kids between the ages of 12 and 18, and Victor is understandably not enthused with the idea of living in adult homeless shelters with those whose “time ran out” sometime back.
Like Victor, all of these kids have dreams. Seth wants to be an artist. Tina wants to teach. Callie wants to model or marry a rock star. Mark wants to be the next Tony Hawk. They sound like kids everywhere because they are like kids everywhere. They’ve just been dealt a tough hand through no fault of their own.
While most said they were just ignoring the fact that it’s the holiday season and quickly changed the subject, I couldn’t help but be a bit skeptical, as most asked me what I was going to give my 12-year-old son for Christmas. It felt awkward to answer. I felt too lucky. I can say this, if my son gets half the joy from his gifts that these kids seemed to get just from thinking about what it would be like, then our holiday will be a success. I wish it could be so for everyone, especially the incredible young people who call our streets their home.
Editor’s note: For safety and legal purposes, the names and certain locations in this article were changed to protect the identities of the minors interviewed.
For more information on Attention Homes or to make donations, visit www.attentionhomes.org or call 303-447-1207