By Sarah Ford
Denver’s street kids often face blame for trouble along the 16th Street Mall–but they care just as much for the city’s number one tourist attraction.
In nine years living on the streets of Denver, 26-year-old Audrey Haynes has seen and heard a lot of stories about the 16th Street Mall. Some she has witnessed herself, some she has heard through homeless friends. Some, she read in news coverage or watched on an evening news broadcast.
In those nine years, she has learned exactly which stories she will see on the news, and which will stay as stories circulated only among the homeless community.
One is a story that involves her husband, Danny. It happened late one night when he and a friend were walking down the Mall after work.
“He and his friend came across a couple of people who began teasing and beating up a middle-aged houseless man,” she says. “The man had been minding his own business and hadn’t done anything to the two young men who were hurting him.”
Danny jumped in to defend the man being beaten, and soon wound up in a fight with the two assailants as well. By the time the police showed up, Danny had been kicked in the face so viciously that he couldn’t remember the fight.
Fortunately, there was a tape. The police watched a video taken by a passerby and decided Danny had acted only to help a defenseless man, and then to defend himself. Both attackers were arrested, and Danny walked away.
If the story doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because nobody told it.
“As far as I know,” Haynes says, “there was no coverage on this story whatsoever.”
A downtown brawl may not be headline news, but when compared to the stories coming from the Mall that do snag headlines, Haynes’ frustration starts to make sense.
Last summer several high-profile violent attacks involving younger transients on the 16th Street Mall became one of the city’s top stories. A series of assaults were heavily covered in local news, including an incident during which a transient man attacked passersby with a PVC pipe.
In many of the stories, including articles detailing a series of weekend stabbings and the pipe attack, those involved were specifically described as young and apparently transient or homeless.
In the wake of these stories, it may surprise Denver residents to find out that many homeless youth living on the Mall have the same fears and anxieties as the city’s general population. As Denver continues to expand, they feel increasingly displaced and vulnerable. And as they bear public blame for increasing violence on the Mall, they too wonder what happened to the city they once knew.
“They are feeling the same anxiety of growth the rest of the state is feeling,” says Robbie Goldman, co-director of homeless youth organization Dry Bones Denver, which serves homeless teens and young adults. He himself is often surprised at the parallel complaints from longtime Denverites and homeless youths that there are too many out-of-towners on the Mall, that it’s gotten too big, and that they feel they don’t know Denver anymore.
“They’re homeless, they’re houseless, but they are not city-less. Now they are becoming cityless,” he says.
As the highly-publicized attacks of last summer spurred fear and attention from Denver citizens, the city announced its newest measure in June 2016: a tripling in uniformed security presence on the Mall, including more DPD officers and a private security organization hired by the Denver Downtown Partnership, to control what Denver Mayor Michael Hancock called a “scourge of hoodlums.”
“That’s not us,” Goldman says. He says the youth who visit Dry Bones have overwhelmingly told him that the violence on the Mall is coming from transients who are often lumped into the same group as the young people living there.
When he announced last year’s plan for increased security, Hancock assured concerned advocates that his office also did not see Denver’s homeless as the problem on the Mall, but instead “aggressive and offensive” travelers.
But the problem, Goldman says, is that the city has not worked hard enough to separate what he calls “Denver’s kids” from the violent travelers it cites. Instead, as downtown business owners and mainstream media discuss problems on the Mall, they too often paint in broad strokes.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric leaves the street youth of Denver feeling more targeted and prone to violence Haynes doesn’t see covered on the news.
“I have seen people come out of bars on or near the Mall late at night and tease and taunt the houseless until they get one of two responses: the houseless person either snaps at them or breaks down into a fit of sobs and tears,” she says.
Despite public perception that violence and panhandling worsened on the Mall in 2016, a Denver Police report obtained by the Denver Post found that, between January and June 14 last year, 522 people were arrested on the Mall, a 7.5 percent decline for the same period in 2015.
But the public fears of aggression by young homeless people took center stage in a 2015 report released by the city’s tourist organization VISIT Denver, which showed that 49 percent of meeting planners cited public safety, homelessness, and particularly homeless youth, as major concerns for event planning in Denver, with emphasis placed on the environment on the Mall.
“People not experiencing homelessness often see homelessness as kind of a category,” says Chris Conner, a program administrator for Denver’s Road Home. “They see it as less of a nuanced experience that a lot of young people have.”
In an effort to bring together homeless youth and city officials, in August 2016 Conner arranged the first of what he hopes to become a regular series of meetings between security officials and homeless youth
“I want to provide it as an orientation, or first impression so to speak, so staff wouldn’t be coming in and seeing youth homelessness as a problem,” he says. “So they come in seeing youth and homelessness as part of the fabric of the community on the Mall.”
The first meeting featured a modest turnout of three youth, paired with three security officers to create an intimate group discussion.
Like Goldman, the concerns Conner heard expressed by youth were strikingly similar to the fears of tourists and visitors.
“They want what a lot of people want, a well-lit cosmopolitan space that is safe,” says Conner. He heard concerns circulated about drug dealing, soliciting, and public intoxication, the same concerns reiterated throughout the VISIT Denver report.
“Every crowd has its bad apples,” Haynes says, “but if an altercation happens to come between the houseless and somebody who is not houseless...we always get the blame.”
Goldman says the focus on homeless youth ends up blaming an entire subculture.
“I’m not minimizing the violence, but that’s the biggest narrative,” he says. “They scapegoated a whole group.”
Advocates have long battled to give better protection to those living on the streets, who are more often the recipients of violence and overlooked by the justice system.
According to a 2015 survey by The National Coalition for the Homeless, there were 122 victims of attacks against people experiencing homelessness in 2014. Twenty-six of those people lost their lives. That dropped to 77 in 2015, but in that year 27 people died as a result of those attacks.
Two of the attacks in that period were reported in Colorado, but the report emphasizes that many of these crimes go unreported.
Despite the risks of violence, and the increased security presence, Goldman says it is not likely the youth will leave the city or stop spending time on the Mall. Most of them, he says, see it as their home that is being rearranged and invaded.
“[On the Mall] they can blend and be part of the city. They’re going to be somewhere, because they live there,” he says. “Each of these kids has a deep attachment to Denver. They have so much pride for their city,” he says.
“People assume that just because we don’t have a place to live that we are ‘homeless,’” says Haynes. “But, to us, home is where the heart is. Just because we don’t have a house or apartment doesn’t mean that we don’t have a home. Home can be with our families, whether by blood or street.
“A lot of people that I met were all born and raised in Denver. We were born and raised here, we love our town, we have a lot of pride here,” she says. “It’s sad that Denver has changed so much.
“We love our mountains. We love how creative [Denver] is, how beautiful it is, how artistic it is. The art is still there, the diversity is still there, the creativity is still there.”
Goldman hopes that there is an opportunity for the city to embrace the knowledge and experience of the homeless in a way that is beneficial for everyone.
“It’s sad that we haven’t built those relationships on the Mall,” he says. “These kids really own Denver, what if we owned them back?”
Conner hopes that more regular meetings between youth and Mall security can help to foster a relationship of mutual benefit, rather than adversity. He hopes to bring representatives together quarterly, but arranging consistent meetings has been a challenge.
Nevertheless, he has already seen real opportunity.
“If everyone is meeting out on the street … in a positive way outside of those meetings, that would be a sign of success,” he says. After all, youth have a lot to bring to the Mall as well.
“There are a number of prosocial and positive roles that young people are playing on the Mall,” he says. “They are consumers on the Mall, they spend money there, they are working there. It’s finding ways to bring that profile forward, rather than the TV news cycle that might focus on an episodic crime.”
Haynes sees the same opportunity.
“Denver can serve as an example of what could be done,” she says, “rather than constantly moving houseless community members from one place to another and labeling them as undesirables.” ■