Attention Homes to Host Sixth Annual Sleep Out

Attention Homes, an organization that helps homeless youth in Boulder County, will host its sixth annual Sleep Out on Nov. 10 to raise money and awareness for youth homelessness.

Attention Homes has served the Boulder area for half of a century, but has changed dramatically in its scope and goals since its founding 51 years ago. Chris Nelson, the deputy director of Attention Homes who has been with the program for 10 years, helped as the organization adapted to its role in serving more than 750 unique homeless youth in 2016 alone. 

“When I started there we served about 30 young people maybe 40, and now it’s over 700,” Nelson said. “It’s been a big jump.”

When Attention Homes first opened, its only service was a short-term residential treatment center for 12-18 year olds. The community-based program is still around today and helps homeless youth people obtain life-skills counseling and daily case management, but the organization has added other programs to serve youth who aren’t referred to the program through social services.

“I noticed really early on that youth we had worked with over the years had aged out of the foster care system and were returning to us for help,” Nelson said. “At that time, all we did was the residential program, so we couldn’t help them.”

After doing an “environmental scan,” Nelson said, Attention Homes developed other programs to help older youth struggling with homelessness or housing instability.

Aside from the residential treatment program, Attention Homes now runs an emergency overnight shelter; drop-in services that provide food, clothing, medical services and help with education; transitional housing that provides young people with weekly case management and counseling and family-reunification work. Between all of the programs, Nelson said, Attention Homes is serving around 55 youth and making up to 40 contacts on the streets every day.

An issue prevalent in Boulder County

According to the 2017 Point in Time survey distributed by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Boulder County has the second highest population of homeless people in the metro area with 600 recorded homeless people. That number is likely much higher, and the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative acknowledges that the survey is “an undercount of homeless and at-risk populations.” Attention Homes estimates there are 168 homeless youth alone in Boulder on any given night.

On top of its high homeless population, Boulder County is notorious for its camping bans, issuing over 1,500 citations to homeless people between 2010 and 2014 according to findings in “Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado,” a study conducted by the University of Denver regarding the criminalization of homelessness in the Centennial State. In the same time frame, Denver issued 15 and Durango issued zero.

Strict enforcement, some city officials think, will help homeless people turn to shelters or other residential programs. But Boulder only has 280 available beds for 440 homeless, according to “Too High a Price.” 

It’s a really complicated system of homelessness for youth in the nation,” Nelson said, “but then it’s compounded in Boulder by a lack of affordability.”

A study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that it would take 86 hours of work at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Boulder. Because of this, Nelson said, many of the youth Attention Homes serves are not “who you’d stereotypically think of as people experiencing homelessness.”

Aside from the lack of affordability, homeless youth are dealing with factors outside of their control. According to Nelson, a disproportionate amount of LBGTQ youth are impacted by homelessness, there are visible racial inequities and every homeless youth Attention Homes serves has dealt with trauma. 

Danny San Filippo, the program manager for the residential program at Attention Homes, said the organization works to address prior trauma while working to help get youth off the streets. 

“There are a few things that are attached to [trauma]. One of them is attachment issues, issues with authorities, lack of trust in relationships with adults, behavioral issues, issues in coping with what they’re dealing with,” Filippo said. “We try to teach them life skills and coping skills, and essentially just have them in a trauma-informed environment that allows them more mental flexibility.”

Raising money, and awareness

In an attempt to raise awareness for youth homelessness and raise money for the organization, Attention Homes hosted its first annual Sleep Out six years ago. That year, 30 registered sleepers raised over $50,000. Last year, more than 100 registered sleepers raised over $134,000.

Individuals who participate in the Sleep Out pledge to spend one night on the lawn between First United Methodist Church and Attention Homes to experience the difficulties of sleeping on the streets in mid-November. Registered sleepers also pledge to raise $1,000.

“Two things are really important in destigmatizing youth homelessness,” Nelson said. “It’s letting people know that this issue exists in our community and it’s not just the surface level that we all see, like the person holding the sign or the young person with dreadlocks on Pearl Street. I’m not judging that, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

For the programs Attention Homes provides, Nelson said it takes around $2 million a year to serve hundreds of youth served. Because of this, both Nelson and Filippo stressed the importance of donations in the form of money, food and clothing.

“Money is a wonderful thing,” Filippo said. “The reality is, we know how to work with these youth, and we know the resources they need. Money goes a long way with an organization like ours.”

Other than sleeping out or raising money to donate, Filippo and Nelson both say there are endless ways to get involved to help homeless youth in the community; it’s as easy as being kind or playing video games.

“You can volunteer without a specific set of skills. We have volunteers come in and sit down and play video games,” Filippo said. “That alone is building a trusting relationship with an adult.”

“On college campuses, particularly the University of Colorado, there are homeless youth accessing the University Memorial Center, hanging out on the Hill,” Nelson said. “Just have some kindness. You never know what situation led somebody to be on the streets and the campus is filled with young people that are often times not stably housed or in stable situations emotionally.”

Written October 18, 2017 for Reporting II