When Allison Ometer and Jessica Petrone leave their office on East Cucharras Street to make their daily rounds, they experience a Colorado Springs not many of us see.
Ometer and Petrone are outreach counselors with Urban Peak Colorado Springs, the nonprofit that provides support to homeless youths ages 15 to 20.
Outreach counselors spend time connecting with the young homeless — offering water, snacks, hygiene items and, more importantly, a caring ear and a safe place to spend the night. After receiving a City of Colorado Springs Community Development grant, Urban Peak will add a full-time outreach counselor to focus mostly on downtown. They currently have three people working the equivalent of 1.5 full-time positions — the added position will allow them to extend their outreach from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and add some weekend hours.
On a recent afternoon, I shadowed Ometer and Petrone on a downtown outreach walk.
Each of the petite women is armed with the Urban Peak backpack, an oversized unit filled with bottled water, snacks, socks and hygiene items. Over about two hours, we made our way in a large loop that included Antlers Park, a couple trips through the public library and the portion of Monument Valley Park near the Marion House Soup Kitchen.
Ometer says it's important to meet the homeless where they are; though the nonprofit has a 20-bed shelter at its Cucharras Street location, not everyone feels comfortable coming in. This is in part the inspiration behind a recently announced collaboration with Inside/Out Youth Services — the outreach counselors are able to use the space at Inside/Out to further connect with homeless youths.
Our first stop was Choo-Choo Park — that's what the kids call the park behind the Antlers Hilton, because of the train there. It became a popular gathering spot after the city installed cameras in Acacia Park. The smell of marijuana and talk of meth hung in the air.
The counselors recognized a girl sleeping in the park. After a couple gentle shakes to attempt to wake her, they pulled out some snacks and a business card and placed them near her. Next, they approached a few of the groups congregated there. A young couple with a baby wanted to talk to Petrone. As she sat with them in the grass, she handed over bottles of water and crackers.
She later explained that the young man had a bad experience in a previous shelter and is hesitant to come to the Urban Peak shelter, but she continues to talk and provide support. This day, he provided her with his real name for the first time — a breakthrough in her opinion. The counselors build trust one granola bar at a time.
Ometer walked to a nearby group and dispersed water and more snacks. As the temperature climbed into the 80s, there was high demand for hydration and water ran out quickly. One girl planted in the middle of a blanket accepted a pack of cheese and crackers and then was eager to share ultrasound photos of a daughter due in a few months. "Look at the one on the top; she's got a cute nose."
In this group, there was a boy Ometer didn't recognize. "How old are you?" she asked. Nineteen, he said. She handed him her card. It's a gentle move the counselors make with new faces, simply making them aware of the shelter.
Everywhere we walked, people chatted with the counselors. Like children who are proud of the gold star on their homework, many of the homeless youths came to share their accomplishments. One boy bragged that he's got a place to live and $200 — he even pulled his wallet out to show them.
"Do you have a job?" they asked. "Yeah, I have a few," he said. Being realistic, the counselors saw this as more a cause for concern than comfort.
"Do you have a safe place to stay?" they ask over and over.
Another young woman said she's on meth again but passed it up twice that day. To Ometer, that's encouraging. She knows the girl might indulge later, but she also knows that it's hard to say no. Passing it up twice should be seen as a sign of strength.
Petrone says it's a job that can leave one jaded, though she fears that's too strong a word. But when a young man outside the library shared with her that he's been sober for a few days, she said it was the sort of news that makes it all worth it.