The Denver Post – AURORA — Before leaving the Comitis Crisis Center in north Aurora, 180 Street Outreach counselors Kelly Woodard and Jay Reynolds loaded their canvassing van up with the usual supplies for an afternoon of combing downtown Denver for street contacts.
They strapped themselves with hiking backpacks stuffed with snacks, socks, flashlights, first-aid kits, water and hygiene products and started approaching young adults holding cardboard signs on street corners or huddled at tables around the bus stop.
“We basically go up to people, ask them if they need our help, give them whatever they need, give them our information and see if there’s anything we can do to help them right then,” said Reynolds, who has worked as a youth counselor at Comitis for six years.
The 180 Street Outreach program is housed at the Comitis Crisis Center, the city’s only homeless shelter, on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
It started about three years ago with a federal grant of more than $575,000 to try to find homeless or runaway people between the ages of 18 and 24 who might need supplies, a place to stay or even a bus ticket home.
“We aim for at least one ticket home a month, but sometimes it’s more than that,” Reynolds said. “I would say we’ve probably sent 25 to 30 young people back since we started. A lot of them are coming from out of state.”
In three years, 180 Street Outreach has contacted more than 800 young-adult homeless people and runaways in and around the metro Denver area. More than 91 “hot spots” where such people typically congregate have been identified, and more than 500 survival aid backpacks have been distributed.
“This program has several layers to it,” said James Gillespie, spokesperson for the Comitis Crisis Center. “Street outreach and trying to build that trust … is the first piece. Then we have community connections, where we invite (them) to meet us at a coffee shop and talk about anything they want to discuss. Then we see if they are willing to come down to Comitis to recharge — take a shower, grab a cup of coffee, get fresh clothes — and then we work on getting them into housing.”
Comitis dedicates six shelter beds a week to homeless young adults.
“We’ve been completely full since winter started,” Woodard said. “We probably bring about three new kids into the shelter every week.”
Comitis received the start-up grant for 180 Street Outreach in 2013 from the federal Administration of Children and Families. The three-year grant provides two full-time staff members and is up for renewal this spring.
“It has taken the first two years to grow roots and gain traction, especially since we’re a new street outreach program,” Reynolds said. “There’s been a push to make these outreach startup grants five years instead of three because it takes a while to gain traction, but we’re seeing the fruits of our labor now in the referrals that are coming in. It just takes a while to build relationships and be accepted into communities that are typically untrusting of outsiders.”
A concurrent program that Comitis launched last November is the Denver Foundation’s public will-building campaign, Close to Home. It aims to inform and alter the common perceptions of homelessness through outreach projects like 180.
Comitis and a dozen other community organizations are using grants from the Denver Foundation to collect data and personal accounts of homelessness.
“We took a public opinion poll just to gauge the public perspectives on homelessness,” said Christie McElhinney, a coordinator for the Close to Home Campaign. “Only 7 percent of people said they felt they had a role in addressing homelessness. So, part of our charge is helping people understand the wide variety of reasons why people lose a safe place to call home.”
She said the efforts of 180 Street Outreach help collect data for the larger picture of mobilizing community organizations and businesses to disseminate information on homelessness.
She added: “It’s clear that people care, and that they want to do something, they just don’t know what to do. And they don’t know how much of a difference it’s going to make.”
Megan Mitchell: 303-954-2650, email@example.com or @Mmitchelldp