The Turf Tour: Learning about Homeless Youth in Denver

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has a material possession and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18, NIV).

~~~

Strung lights dazzle over the street. A hidden speaker emits haunting music, adding to the aura that leaves pedestrians in a daze. Wealth oozes out of the restaurants, fancy clothing stores, and expensive pet shops. The river flows a road away and a level down. Welcome to Larimer Street.

Across the intersection and down a level from the roads, athletes bike and run on beige sidewalks lining the river. Tall grass forms a median in the river, and green trees further beautify the landscape. We walk along the sidewalk, in the hot sun for a few minutes, in the shade of a bridge next. Here we pause.

Denverites travel past us, oblivious to their heavy surroundings. Like me, they see only the open sky, the lush beauty of the landscape, the cream sidewalk beneath their feet. We do not look up until instructed.

“Look at the bridges. What do you see?” one guide queries.

“Bars,” I answer, probing the architecture with my eyes.

“Why do you think those bars are there?” she replies.

“To keep people out,” someone responds, seeing the alcoves at the top of the bridge blocked by rusted iron rods. We stand there in silent realization of our surroundings.

The beautiful city of Denver houses both the haves and the have-nots. The haves live in apartments renting at $750, $900, or $2,000 per month. They may live in lofts and houses selling for $250,000 and $500,000 respectively. The have-nots live in bridges and alcoves hidden from the haves. They see but remain unseen. And now the city is removing what little “housing” the have-nots used by barring bridges and banning camping. It is also eliminating hang outs by barring tunnels.

I have not talked to the city officials about this, but I am curious about how they would explain all these bars. We discuss this as we continue on our turf tour. Some people suggest that the city would say the bars are a health precaution. They do not want people entering the tunnel because then they will use drugs or get sick from the unsanitary water.

I am not satisfied.

My eyes have been opened to a world beneath my feet. We walk over homeless youth daily, both figuratively and literally, oblivious to our fellow humans.

We know when we stride past homeless men and women on the streets. Unwilling to give from our abundance and scared that they will hurt us, we glance away without a hello. We do not pause to consider how they have become homeless. We do not stop to ask for their story. Instead we fear, judge, and walk past them like the priest and Levite did to the man who had been mugged in the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10 in the Bible). We never think that the white male in a suit could quite feasibly be a criminal and that the shaggy, worn individual with plastic bags could become a trusted friend with a wealth of lessons to teach us.

The Holy Spirit causes me to twinge when I walk past these homeless people because I know I am being selfish, prideful, and fearful by ignoring them. That alone could become a blog topic. However, most people — myself included — have no idea that they live across from or above the hidden homes of homeless teens. This ignorance is a separate, massive problem.

Most of us complain when our stomachs grumble in the least and talk about going out for Mexican food or pizza as if it is nothing; the unseen homeless people may go without any food for a day. And we do not even realize they are beneath the bridges on which we walk, just around the corners by the highways on which we travel to work, and on the intersections we cross daily as we bus or walk to the store or home.

We sleep on our comfortable mattresses in our comfortable rooms, safe from the outdoor elements, uninterrupted in our sleep. They squat in grassy corners outside, tucked in bridges where no one would think to look, and on wooden slats far into wet, dark tunnels. Even the messiest middle class families sleep inside on some form of comfortable material, but the homeless youth often sleep on hard, dirty, rocky earth.

Our mattresses are dry and our clothes and sheets are washed frequently. Their pillows are soggy and their beds are hard. Most Denverites and citizens of the United States can purchase new things when their old ones form a hole, fade a color shade, or go out of style. However, the homeless youth’s pillows are soggy and their clothing is in disrepair.

Our group walks by the grass and the river in silent contemplation of what we have seen. Reaching another bridge, I admire the white, rocky ground next to the sidewalk. It looks pretty to me. A moment later, one guide speaks and points out the very ground I had noticed. What he says shocks me and almost makes me ashamed of myself.

“Do you see how lush the grass is out there? But here there are rocks so that no one can sleep here under the bridge,” he says, adding, “The rocks are cemented in so you can’t even move them around to make a space to sleep.” The guide expounds upon how uncomfortable it would be to sleep under a bridge like that and how the homeless are being continually kicked out of places they formerly could have slept.

My view of an attractive city came from a middle class perspective rather than a practical one. What I had perceived as beauty was actually a prong in the side of our guides’ homeless friends.

The tour ends. We have seen bars and bridges, a youth who just shot up, tunnels and utter physical darkness like we had never experienced before. We have heard of injustice and about the crafty expulsion of homeless teens in Denver; I am sure it is the same in cities around the United States. We have also heard stories of hope and have had our hearts burdened.

The tour guides leave, and we split up to go home, explore, or chill in the city. How should we go about life now?

Since our hearts our heavy, one person suggests seeing a movie that night. Some of us put the turf tour out of our mind as we find our way home, figuring out the bus system and resting on our beds from a long day. At dinner several of us reflect on the sights we have seen, the actions of our cities, and on our homeless and poor friends. The compassion we felt earlier transitions into advocacy as we discuss what we can do about this new knowledge and understanding.

I do not want to grow a one sided view — that of the underprivileged and misrepresented. I realize that learning about their situation is crucial and that they receive much injustice. However, as any good journalist should do with his or her writing and as Proverb 18:13, 15 and especially verse 17 imply, I want to hear all sides of the story first: theirs, those of the middle and upper class, and the city’s. Then I will be able to move forward more wisely, as aware of all sides of the story as possible.

This is where I stand now. I have been in Denver in my summer city immersion experience for one week and have already had the beginnings of an eye opening behind the scenes tour. I am sure I will continue to learn about people’s back stories, thoughts, and reasoning throughout my eight weeks here. I also hope to love people practically from a well informed standpoint, keeping the Gospel as my motivation and Jesus as my teacher.

What are you doing to do to help the needy now, and how will you receive what they have to say?

~~~

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son (Jesus Christ) as an atoning sacrifice for our since. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

“We know that we live in him and he in us because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us to that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10-19, NIV).

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