Denver women, youths often face additional hardships while living on the street

Homeless women often make themselves invisible to avoid trouble

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For Jami Helmig, a resource like Warren Village provided her with more than just housing — it gave her the confidence to be herself again.

Helmig first heard about Warren Village when she was pregnant with her daughter. She was seeing a therapist for childhood trauma as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault. Although she was living with her parents at the time, it was not ideal. She, her sister and parents shared a small apartment and with a baby on the way, Helmig decided she needed a space of her own.

“I was lucky enough to have had somewhere to be,” she said. But as a massage therapist living with her family, Helmig realized that the path she was taking would not sustain her and her young daughter in the long term.

Warren Village is one of the many nonprofits in Denver that helps provide resources and housing. Single parents can live in the Warren Village building while attending school or working. The organization also provides different life-skills classes and childcare, in the hopes of getting people back on their feet to avoid homelessness.

After getting her GED three years ago, Helmig moved into Warren Village with her 1-year-old daughter Jayda. She’s lived there ever since, completing an associate’s degree to become a physical therapy assistant. Now, she’s decided to continue her schooling to become a neurologist and neurosurgeon.

“When I came here I had no confidence, and didn’t feel safe in the world with people,” Helmig said. “It’s not just a safe place to stay, they have supportive services.”

Making yourself invisible

Homeless women and children have a different set of needs than the rest of the population. Women are particularly vulnerable to assault when living on the streets. Children can be drawn into crime and sex trafficking. Single women with children need to find reliable and safe places to watch them while they search for jobs or housing. Safety issues can be magnified even more if a person is part of the LGBTQ community.

During the 2019 Point in Time count, 3,943 homeless people were counted in the City and County of Denver, an increase of nearly 500 from last year. Women represented around 30% of that count, or 1,171 individuals. Of the total count, 196 people were unaccompanied youths, 353 were fleeing from domestic violence and 69% lived in central Denver.

Although women and youths do make up a smaller portion of the homeless population, said BJ Iacino, the vice president of resource development with The Gathering Place, they are out there.

The Gathering Place is a day shelter that has been around in Denver for the past 30 years. Iacino said that because homeless women are often fleeing from violence, “they develop rather essential survival tactics,” she said. In other words, they find ways to make themselves invisible.

This invisibility stretches to the public view, Iacino said, adding it also can make it difficult when trying to get federal funding specifically for homeless women.

“Their needs are not well characterized in federal policy priorities,” she said.

Homeless youths also make themselves invisible as a way to hide from being preyed on for crime or sex trafficking. Christina Carlson, the CEO of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that serves homeless youths, said the organization does outreach to “find youth where they are” in the hopes of meeting their basic needs. One of those needs is learning how to build relationships.

“At the core of what we do is we build trusting relationship with adults for homeless youth who may never have had that,” Carlson said.

Need for a resource guide

When you’re out on the street, it can be overwhelming. Helmig said she is an advocate for creating a book or guide for people who are looking for different resources.

“It’s not shelters that we need,” Helmig said. “We need housing that has inclusive things such as supportive services.”

One resource that the City of Denver puts on annually is Project Homeless Connect. Homeless people living in Denver are connected with a volunteer who can take them around to different nonprofit booths during the event as well as a job fair. The event also offers hair cuts, legal services, professional photos and more. During this year’s event more than 1,500 people attended and were connected with services.

Many of the resources at Project Homeless Connect are centered around women. Shelters, family services and health services for women are included in the more than 130 organizations that participated this year.

This year, Project Homeless Connect also partnered with the Veterans Affairs office. Similar to the general homeless population, women are not often thought of when thinking of services for veterans. There has been a 10% increase in women vets. Khristie Barker, who works in community outreach with Veterans Affairs, said “women vets are trying hard to make a name for themselves.”

“I’m glad that they’re here,” she said. “It can be intimidating being on the streets as a woman.”

She added that many women vets had stopped by during the Homeless Connect event and were connected with needed services.

Virginia “Sky” Bryant was one of the people who attended the event. Although she is currently in housing, she said that the feeling of homelessness hasn’t left her yet.

“I don’t know if that will ever leave me,” she said. “Home is about safety, which goes beyond four walls and a roof.”

Bryant is one of many people who are dealing with trauma from abuse and rape. Over the years, Bryant has been homeless 10 different times.

Now, Bryant is a writer for the Denver Voice, a monthly publication providing job opportunities for people experiencing homelessness or poverty. She started as a carrier, but said the job was difficult for her because she never felt safe alone on the street. Instead, she writes about her experience as a homeless person. She wants to start what she calls the “Strategies of Survival University,” where she can pass along her knowledge and help lead other people to resources. She added that she wants to be part of a solution to homelessness.

“Something happened when I turned 70,” she said of the decision to share her knowledge. “I consider myself a teacher.”

Out of the shelter, into a home

Most of the existing shelters for women operate at night, giving them a place to sleep. The Gathering Place is a place for them to go during the day. The nonprofit offers job readiness programs, clothes, a food pantry and even an art program. The art made by the women who stay there is sold online, with the artists receiving a royalty, Iacino said.

Places like Urban Peak offer both a drop-in day service, as well as a nighttime shelter. This month, Carlson said the staff at Urban Peak is working to expand the hours of its day shelter. It will also serve three meals a day.

Although “a meal doesn’t solve homelessness,” Carlson said the expanded services will open a door for homeless youths, making Urban Peak’s services more available to help get them off the streets for good.

For children in particular, this can be critical because their bodies and brains are still growing.

“We have this opportunity with youth when their brains are still developing and they’re so resilient, we have this moment where we can really change what their future looks like,” Carlson said. “I often say that Urban Peak’s work is prevention work, not really intervention work.”

For most of the nonprofit services in Denver, whether they are serving women, youths or LGBTQ individuals, the goal is not just to shelter them for the night. The goal is to get them into a home.

Although there is some overlap in the services they offer, such as transitional housing, job programs and classes for life skills, many of the nonprofits serving women are looking for the gaps. The Delores Project for example, serves women without children, and is the only shelter in the Denver metro area that serves transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.

The Delores Project first started serving the trans community eight years ago after seeing a need to create a safe space for those who were being “victimized and harassed,” said Stephanie Miller, CEO with the organization.

In the Point in Time Count, only 22 transgender people were counted, but Miller estimated that between 17% and 20% of the nearly 400 people they served at the Delores Project identified as trans.

Carlson added that “the LGBT population is highly over-represented in homeless populations.” Sometimes, women and trans youths who have aged out of services from Urban Peak move on to receive help from The Delores Project.

The Delores Project also moved forward in offering extended shelter stays, allowing women to stay anywhere from six months to up to two years.

“We are the only shelter in the city, perhaps in the state that offers beds for beyond one night at a time,” Miller said.

Trauma informed care

Safety is often a large concern for women who are homeless. Assault on the streets is not uncommon. Warren Village has security in place for its residents, and the Delores Project does not publish its address in order to protect the women staying at the shelter.

This helps people relax, so they can put their efforts into their health or job programming at the shelter, Miller said.

“Just being homeless is a trauma in and of itself,” she said. “They don’t worry about their surroundings so they can focus their minds on other things.”

Because many of these individuals living on the streets have been the victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and rape, they also deal with mental health issues as a result of that trauma. For Helmig, it took her a long time to feel safe walking places by herself.

There has also been an increase in women veterans living on the streets, Iacino said. When veterans or women and LGBTQ individuals are living on the street and not taking care of their mental health, those issues can get worse.

“When you drill down, the picture becomes more discouraging,” Iacino said.

Homelessness is often a more “complicated picture” than what people think, Carlson said. A person could have become homeless due to any number of reasons, and few people choose to stay homeless.

Because the circumstances of a person’s homelessness varies so much, there’s not always a one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s all well and good for us adults to say ‘it should be like this,’” Carlson said of working with homeless youths.

“Homelessness is not just what you see on the street corner,” Carlson said. “As a society we have one image, and the truth is much more complex.”

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