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How The Pandemic Forced A Youth Homeless Shelter In Colorado To Adapt

Karen Henschel (left) is an education and employment case manager at The Place. Hunter Locklear is a young person living in the shelter.
Karen Henschel (left) is an education and employment case manager at The Place. Hunter Locklear is a young person living in the shelter.

In Colorado Springs, The Place is a shelter for young people experiencing homelessness. The pandemic has only increased the number of individuals who are unhoused, but in the early days of lockdowns, The Place’s outreach team had trouble finding youth.

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“Many of them didn't come out to the normal places where we could usually connect with them, let’s say, for example, to the library or the parks, because so many things were closed that youth didn't have a reason to come out,” said Shawna Kemppainen, the shelter’s director.

So the outreach team started searching in different areas, like encampments, which it wouldn't normally do.

“If a young person or any person is staying outside in a tent, that is their home,” Kemppainen explained. “We might not think of it as a home, but for them, it is a home, so we tended to not go up to a tent.”

But the organization was determined to find young people and help them secure shelter. The Place changed its normal procedures and opened its doors 24/7, which kept its 20 beds for 15- to 20-year-olds almost always spoken for. Its staff also works to help guide youth who are ready to transition into their own space. Kemppainen says they’re on track to accomplish that for 90 people this year.

As the pandemic has put a spotlight on homelessness across the country and in the Mountain West, Colorado stands out. Its 10,000 people living on the streets is the highest number in the region, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 homelessness assessment. Nevada counts nearly 7,000 people experiencing homelessness.

The Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group, published a report projecting that pandemic-related job loss will cause twice as much chronic homelessness as the 2008 Great Recession, with Latinos and African Americans especially vulnerable.

Among those experiencing homelessness are an untold number of unsheltered youth.

Hunter Locklear is 19 and he’s been living at The Place for a couple of months. In January, he found himself sleeping on the streets for reasons he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing. When on the streets, the pandemic was the last thing on his mind.

“I was constantly worried about where I was going to put my stuff and where I was going to put my head down for the night,” Locklear said.

He didn’t want his valuables to be stolen, like his video games. He’s a gamer and that’s his escape.

“I like how it’s, like, a different place to be, you know?” Locklear said. “You don’t have to go anywhere to have a new experience. You can just have it in your hand.”

Locklear received a stimulus check from the latest COVID-19 relief bill and it prompted him to open his first bank account. He’s quick to challenge the stereotype that people experiencing homelessness are looking for handouts and is proud of his new job at Wendy’s.

“I'm new, so I still haven’t learned how to do everything, but I know how to use the fryer, how to use the grill,” he said. “I make the bacon. I’m learning how to make sandwiches.”

Locklear also challenges stereotypes about young people and homelessness.

“A group of kids should never be taken at face value,” he said. “There are a lot of homeless people who don’t look like it.”

Karen Henschel, an education and employment case manager at The Place, says stigmas around homelessness are so embedded they’re often perpetuated by people she believes should be community leaders.

“I heard a police officer say something about how they’re unmotivated and lazy, and it’s like, ‘Hmm, it’s not about them not being motivated, it’s about them not having the foundation and the skills, and know that they deserve all the dignity and worth that everyone else has.’ And that’s what we're here for,” she said.

The Place has returned to its pre-pandemic model. That means the shelter is closed during the day unless an appointment has been scheduled with a case manager, so everyone heads out after the morning meeting.

Henschel leads that meeting, and the group chooses a word for the day that’s meant to set an intention. Usually they talk through short-term goals, but recently they're coordinating how to sign up for vaccines.

Coming back for lunch is optional, but in order to secure a bed for the night, being back by 5:15 p.m. is mandatory.

“It takes some time for youth to navigate our programming,” Henschel said. “Our goal is to support youth in knocking down barriers and not add more.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

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