For local leaders, ground breaking and ribbon cuttings are usually cause for celebration, helmets, shovels and all. But Monday’s ceremony marking the start of construction on a new shelter for homeless youth began with something else: a moment of silence.
The mood lightened when Urban Peak CEO Christina Carlson shared the news that a member of the nonprofit’s community who had experienced homelessness had recently died while tent camping — putting the need for more resources into sharp relief.
“As we grieve for someone we care deeply about, we must look to the future,” Carlson said. “We deeply believe that this project and the work we are doing in the city and at the state and federal level can truly change and save lives.”
The new $37 million shelter, called the “Mothership,” is set to open at the old Urban Peak site on Acoma St. in 2024
Urban Peak began serving youth experiencing homelessness in 1998 and grew to serve about 1,000 teenagers and young adults in 2021. But the shelter had become overcrowded, run down and in need of renovation.
The new building will increase the shelter’s capacity from 30 residents to 136 residents, add on-site case management and health services. It will also include a separate wing for people aged 21 to 24.
Meanwhile, Urban Peak caters to youngsters at The Spot on Stout St.
The project comes amid an increase in Denver’s homeless population from about 4,500 in 2020 to about 5,500 in 2021, according to the 2021 shelter count. Data from a research group studying youth experiencing homelessness found that youth without a degree for a high school diploma or GED, youth with children, youth earning less than $24,000, and LGBT, black, and Hispanic youth are at increased risk.
“I think we would all be blind if we didn’t recognize the incredible destruction and devastating impact on people experiencing homelessness that we see on the streets,” Carlson said. “I always want to remind people that we’re not just talking about who you see, we’re talking about a population of people who are sleeping on couches or in hotels or in unstable housing.”
Carlson said she’s especially excited about the new separate wing for young adults who legally can’t stay in juvenile shelters but often don’t want to stay in adult shelters. So they end up camping on the streets. The new shelter will also provide residents with more privacy than the previous building.
Money for the project comes from a combination of private and public funding.
Representative Diana DeGette helped secure $3 million in federal funding through the March 2022 congressional spending package and an additional $400,000 for Urban Peak to continue providing services during construction. At the groundbreaking, Mayor Michael Hancock thanked voters for approving the 2021 bond package, which allows Denver to borrow millions of dollars for city projects.
“This facility will build on the progress we’ve made in our city and make it easier than ever for teenagers and young people to get the help and support they need,” Hancock said. “I’m damn proud to be here today.”
Jason Marquez lived at the Urban Peak shelter when he was younger. He now serves on the board and knows firsthand how the new shelter will help young people.
When he lived there the summer after his freshman year of college, Marquez described the Urban Peak building as “falling down.” But the services he received were vital. In addition to shelter, Marquez received job and housing assistance, earned a degree in social work and attended law school. He said the new facility’s ability to provide on-site support services, as well as help with things like cooking and laundry, are important in helping residents become independent.
“I wouldn’t be able to reach my potential if it weren’t for services like Urban Peak,” he said. “People need to have secure, safe and adequate housing because you can’t really focus on doing anything else when you’re involved in a day-to-day struggle to meet your basic basic needs.”
Marquez said many people don’t realize how homelessness can happen to anyone and that resources for adults, in addition to youth, are just as important.
“I think it’s easy for people to almost dehumanize people who are homeless,” he said. “It’s much easier to look at homelessness as something that people have done, as opposed to something that has happened to them.”