Keeping Colorado kids off the market

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AURORA | A neon green van outfitted with an orange gorilla face painted along its side doors may not be what you expect when you think of homeless outreach.

The face serves as the “o” in the signature of a well-known Colorado graffiti artist, Jolt, who painted the van, which also includes a Denver cityscape as a backdrop and a kid wearing a backwards ballcap standing next to a Colorado flag-inspired logo that reads “180 Street Outreach.”  

The van belongs to the program, whose goal is to establish relationships with runaway and homeless youth in Aurora who may not otherwise know about or who are hesitant to stay at the residential building Comitis Crisis Center operates on the
Anschutz Campus. 

Outreach workers Jay Reynolds and Caitlin Arce use the hulking 1992 Dodge Ram to regularly scan the city’s parks, libraries, and strip malls. 

They go to places like the 7-Eleven on the corner of South Sable Boulevard and East Mississippi Avenue on a Friday afternoon. Reynolds says the convenience store attracts kids from Gateway High School. 

He points out there are usually 50 kids at this spot, but with school out, there are only six hanging outside of the convenience store today.  

“That term is called community mapping, when you find hot spots in your area,” he says. “We try to get our information out there to as many youths as possible. You never know who they know who might be couch surfing or just got kicked out of their home. We don’t want to just profile and assume you’re not homeless because you’re not carrying a big backpack.”

Arce offers the kids bottled water and Rice Krispy treats.  A teen wearing a white T-shirt and Nike basketball shorts takes out his earbuds and laughs nervously as he accepts the snacks. She hands him a card with the phone number and the location of the Comitis shelter as well as some of the services it provides, such as showers, warm meals and safe beds.

“Can you pass this along to someone you know who needs a safe place to stay?” she asks. He nods, thanks her in a quiet voice and walks back to his friends.

Back in the van, she recalls another recent experience with a kid wearing headphones. 

“I wouldn’t have thought he was homeless, but I approached him anyway. He said to me that when his dad comes home drunk, he needs a place to go. He never knows when that’s going to happen, but it’s not safe for him to be there if it happens,” she says.  

The 180 Street Outreach program takes a four-tiered approach to outreach. It starts with simply meeting the kids at the same time every week — whether it’s at the library or in a park—where the staff hand out drawstring backpacks filled with water, snacks and hygiene products. 

Arce and Reynolds even carry along oral swab HIV tests that take about 20 minutes to complete. The tests can cost $40 at a local pharmacy, but the program gets them for free from the Colorado Children’s Hospital. 

From there, it’s maybe an invitation to meet at Caribou Coffee on East Colfax Avenue near the Anschutz campus with other homeless and runaway youth, and then having the kids come in for drop-in hours at Comitis where they can get free mental health and substance abuse counseling. The eventual goal is to either help kids get home or provide them with housing at Comitis. 

Runaway and homeless youth are harder to spot in Aurora than in Denver, the outreach workers say, because they’re more hidden — whether it’s in the “welfare motels” along Colfax, or at Del Mar park or at the food court in the Town Center of Aurora mall. 

“There are more day shelters and a lot more hangout spots for the homeless,” Arce says of Denver in comparison. 

About 1,450 homeless youth are enrolled in Aurora Public Schools, according to Comitis. And East Colfax Avenue is known to service providers as the “homeless highway,” as well as a magnet for runaway and homeless youth. A May 2012 report from the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking revealed a growing concern among law enforcement officers for young  girls who fall victim to “johns” on Colfax looking for sex. 

Comitis received a grant for the street outreach program specifically to prevent these youth from being sexually exploited, said program spokesman James Gillespie. National statistics say that 1 in 3 homeless youth are lured into prostitution within the first 48 hours of being on the street, making them a particularly vulnerable population. 

The program, which started last October, will last for three years and will provide funding for street outreach for $170,690 per year. 

“Where I-25 and I-70 intersect in Colorado, child trafficking is also an issue,” Gillespie adds. According to the Center for Public Policy Studies, Colorado is a destination for human trafficking because of its international airport, large immigrant population, and convergence of major interstate highways. In Denver alone, the commercial sex industry is fueled by about $60 million dollars a year. Data on trafficking costs outside of Denver were not available.

Arce says she and Reynolds have distributed at least 120 backpacks to runaway and homeless youth since the program started. 

“Our goal with the backpacks was to give out 150 this year. We’re probably going to give out 200. Yesterday, we gave out 10,” she said.