Updated: September 1, 2014 at 7:22 am
Last December, when 18-year-old Andrew Hughes got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend, Katie Koller, 19, the couple experienced a rare burst of euphoria. Katie began to tear up.
"Is that a yes?" Andrew asked.
Katie nodded her head.
Guarantees are hard to come by for this newlywed couple. They've lived homeless for about a year, two of the estimated hundreds of teens in El Paso County who, for any number of reasons, end up on the streets.
Homelessness isn't their only concern, though. Both have long lists of physical and mental health issues.
"The last hospital stay I was deemed mentally unstable," Katie says.
In mid-December, the couple's first child is due. Life on the streets isn't pregnancy-friendly.
"You worry about your next meal, if you're going to have food in your stomach," Andrew said. "Especially, if you're pregnant."
Compounding their situation: They're hermaphrodite transsexuals, each possessing male and female parts. Although the government and doctors still identify Andrew (born Shawna) and Katie (born Derek) by their birth-assigned genders, the couple identify otherwise. Andrew is giving birth to the couple's child, but considers himself the dad, and Katie is the mom.
Because Andrew and Katie often sleep outside, their sleep schedules frequently match the sunrise and sunset of each day. They wake up early, then usually head straight to the 7-Eleven, their go-to breakfast destination.
On a recent summer's morning, they're at the 7-Eleven on South Nevada Avenue, where they grab one bacon cheeseburger apiece, plus a few other items. At the checkout, Katie gets gummy bears and gummy worms. "For our hypoglycemia," Andrew says.
When they check out, Katie pays the $15 charge with her food stamp card. Two days later, when the couple pays $2 for a 7-Eleven Big Gulp, they are officially broke.
How Andrew and Katie ended up homeless is a story that Shawna Kemppainen knows well. Kemppainen is executive director of Urban Peak, which provides shelter and services to homeless teens in the Pikes Peak region, and she says there are two primary populations: foster children and LGBT youths. About 30 percent of the area's homeless teens went through the foster care system, she says, and 40 percent are LGBT youths who have faced rejection from their families. Kemppainen calls the teens she works with the "most resilient, brave people that I've met."
While not technically lesbian/gay, bisexual or transgendered, Andrew and Katie say they've been rejected by their families and churches because of who they are. Andrew says a clergyman once told him he would "burn in hell."
Katie says she was physically abused by a family friend. She dropped out of school as a junior as she struggled with the abuse. She also was drinking heavily.
"I started drinking when I was in elementary school," she says. "It started out a few shots here and there, then a liter of vodka a day and then 2 liters per day." Now, Katie says, she drinks much less frequently because of the cost and health risks.
The couple had stayed at Urban Peak, but say they left because Katie wasn't allowed to keep her stash of medical marijuana, even though she has a card for it. They also stayed at the Salvation Army shelter for a few nights, but say they were frustrated that they couldn't sleep together, since shelter residents are separated by gender.
So they're back on the streets. Most mornings, they'll walk around looking for "now hiring" signs or they'll go online to search for a job, but they face numerous barriers aside from their physical and mental health problems. They didn't graduate from high school, and their skill set is limited. They focus mostly on jobs at fast-food places and convenience stores, but nothing has come through.
How they got here
After their 7-Eleven stop, they walk to Penrose Library downtown to charge Katie's phone, and they run into several friends from their stay at Urban Peak. Andrew talks excitedly about his baby with the group, showing them baby pictures from a prenatal magazine.
"Looks like an alien," jokes a friend who is also homeless.
About an hour later, Andrew and Katie head to nearby Antlers Park, where they meet Jacob Everhart, CJ Toy and Lexy Benjamin, three homeless teens. They sit in a circle under a pine tree and chat. Occasionally, they pass around a glass pipe with marijuana.
Andrew says his life took a turn for the worse in the past three years. He dropped out of school, got kicked out of his family's home and continued to battle his health issues without extra support. "I just felt like (expletive) until I met Katie," he says.
They met six years ago in Greeley. Andrew was living there, and Katie was staying at a hotel for a family gathering. They hung out and became friends, but Andrew moved to California that summer, and they lost touch.
Last year, they reconnected online, and one night Katie asked Andrew to be her boyfriend. Andrew moved back to Colorado, and a few months later, he proposed.
Now, as they live on the streets in Colorado Springs, Katie and Andrew spend nearly every waking moment at each other's side. "She makes me feel like I have someone that respects me and doesn't just use me," Andrew says.
In Antlers Park, Andrew, Katie and the others are talking about how they slept the night before. "I took a shower last night before I went to sleep," Andrew says. This doesn't happen every day for them.
"People think the homeless are dirty," Andrew says. "Most just don't have a place to shower."
Several of CJ's friends live in apartments nearby, and open up their bathroom to homeless youths for free showers. Sometimes, lines for the shower reach double digits.
"You all want a shower?" CJ said.
Jacob's eyes light up. Those are the golden words of the day.
Later that afternoon, Katie and Andrew walk to the doctor's office. The two are on Medicaid, and Andrew has an ultrasound appointment.
The clinic is a 1.5-mile walk from Antlers Park, and that's nothing. According to Katie, the two can easily walk up to 10 miles each day. Before becoming pregnant, Andrew lost nearly 100 pounds from the couple's daily routine of near constant movement.
"Shawna Hughes for an ultrasound," Andrew says as he checks in, giving the birth name that still appears on his legal records and medical documents.
When "Shawna" is called, he and Katie follow the nurse.
"The first thing I do is I feel my stomach to see if the kid's awake," Andrew said. "I constantly worry about what's going on. Is the baby healthy? Where's the next place we're going to go? Where's our next meal going to come from? When's the next time I'm going to be able to shower? Just basic stuff."
Andrew lies down in the clinic bed and rolls up his shirt as the nurse points to the couple's child on the television screen. Smiles appear on Katie and Andrew's faces as they stare up and then grin at each other.
"That's a good heartbeat," the nurse says.
Several minutes later, the couple leave the clinic. Katie clutches a picture of the baby, whose due date is Dec. 15.
"I'd rather be homeless with someone than rich and alone," says Andrew, as they walk outside to Memorial Park.
In the evening, the couple celebrates Andrew's 18th birthday with Katie's mom, who is in their lives, but not often. Katie isn't fond of her mother's boyfriend, but the mom still pays for Katie's cellphone bill, and on this night, she takes them out for Chinese food. It's a rare treat, which Andrew calls a "luxury," and Katie says "tastes amazing."
As the evening winds down, Katie's mom hands over a small camping tent and leaves them. Andrew and Katie head for a park south of downtown, where they pitch their tent. Roughly 40 other homeless people sleep in the park that night.
The following day, they're back at 7-Eleven as they start their daily routine. But that afternoon, when they return to their campsite, the tent is gone.
Also missing are two items that served as engagement bands: a bracelet spelling out 'Pride,' which Andrew gave to Katie, and a red, green and yellow sweatband that was passed down by Katie's grandmother.
"It meant a lot to both of us," Andrew says.
And in another stroke of bad luck, Katie loses her wallet, which included her food stamp card, her driver's license, Social Security cards, Medicaid numbers and Andrew's birth certificate.
"We're just trying to get on our feet when it feels like every time we try, we get knocked down," Andrew says.
Andrew and Katie aim to be employed before the cold weather returns. "I'm hoping that before the kid's born we can get our stuff back together," Andrew says. "Not being stable is not healthy for the child."
They walk past the Antlers Hilton and pay no attention to the visitors arriving in stretch limos. They gaze intently at the next intersection as they walk forward, holding hands.
"Everything happens for a reason," Andrew says. "Life's either your heaven or your hell. You decide."