When he announced his sexual orientation to his family, A.J. was kicked out of the house and forced to live on Colorado Springs' streets.
Not knowing what to do, A.J. turned to Urban Peak of Colorado Springs for help. Because of its involvement with the Empty Stocking Fund, Urban Peak was able to provide shelter and an opportunity for A.J. to seek employment.
Now 26, A.J. is working in the restaurant industry and continues to grow professionally, said Urban Peak Executive Director Shawna Rae Kemppainen. "He (A.J.) was in UPCS' shelter, employment and housing program for about two years. I had the opportunity to see him at a community event and he's doing great in his life."
A.J. is grateful to Urban Peak, which aids homeless youth in getting off the street and becoming self-sufficient. Its shelter, street outreach and housing programs reach approximately 600 youths annually in the Pikes Peak region. Empty Stocking Fund helps Urban Peak provide these services, according to Kamppainen.
"Our goal is that youth find strength in themselves and use our help to build their stability. We know our mission to ignite the potential in youth to exit homelessness is a great fit for the ESF investment," Kamppainen said. "We reach 150 youth a year in our Shelter Program for youth ages 15 through 20, and funds from the ESF support that core of our work."
Alex got hooked on drugs and alcohol and became homeless after his mom died. However, through encouragement and support of his grandparents, Alex enrolled with the Urban Peak Shelter Program to regain his stability and sobriety.
Following six weeks in the program, Alex attended a Job Corps conference in Denver and joined the Forestry Conservation and Firefighting Career Training Program, said Urban Peak grant writer Angie Hackett-Larson.
"The youth served at the shelter come from a variety of backgrounds, and we strive to be a safe community for all youth, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, class, educational background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or ability status," Hackett-Larson said.
Kemppainen added, "Research shows that a high school graduate will earn about $20,000 more a year than someone who does not complete high school, and will also cost on average $292,000 over a lifetime in their community because of the price tag associated with poverty, paying less taxes, being more likely to face incarceration and other factors."
One obstacle faced by homeless youth is the lack of affordable housing, Kemppainen said. "These youth, even those who are working full-time jobs, are unable to find an apartment they can afford in this tight market."
The stigma that youth choose to be homeless is another obstacle, Kemppainen said, and Urban Peak wants to change that perception. "Youth living in homelessness can convince themselves it is what they want because it's easier than facing the truth that adults in their lives and society haven't invested the right resources to help them exit homelessness and be successful," she said.
Giving to the Empty Stocking Fund is one of the best ways to help Urban Peak make a difference, Kemppainen said.
"People can volunteer to cook meals in our shelter, collect kitchen items for youth moving out into their own apartments, or get involved in many other ways," she said.
There is no greater investment than investing in the future of a young person, Kemppainen said.
To learn more visit www.urbanpeak.org.