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Homeless youths reach out through writing and art at Speak Out! event in Durango

From 2018 through 2022 at least 536 students enrolled in K-12 experienced homelessness in rural Southwest Colorado
“This piece represents vacant housing as well as those without housing options,” begins the writing that accompanied this painting at the Speak Out! event held Wednesday at the Durango Public Library. “I mainly drew my inspiration from people dealing with housing insecurities and many vacant houses available that are inaccessible due to pricing or other factors like credit score, age or income...” (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

No one is more vulnerable than a young person living on the streets, scratching out an existence while trying to form an identity from the pieces of a life shattered of security and love – a birthright only imagined or glimpsed through windows of well-lit homes where laughter rings with hope.

Oak Tree Youth Resources of Durango partnered with the Durango Public Library on Wednesday night to create and hold a sacred space for the children of the street to call out – to share – to howl their anguish in a world that seems to have swallowed their existence. The event, held at the library was called Speak Out! and was in honor of Homeless Youth Awareness Month.

Three women read on behalf of youths too vulnerable to stand in front of the audience of 30 adults who had gathered to see the art and hear the words of homeless youths in Durango and rural Southwest Colorado.

Shivering on a park bench/With a dollar to my name/Only the shirt on my back/Wishing each day was the same/Longing for home’s sweet comfort/The dent in the kitchen floor/But not the constant fear of/Dad going through the front door/I miss my dog’s sweet jingle/As she runs about the house/But not the stinging leather/Every day since I came out/And as I try to stay warm/On the side of dirty streets/All I want is for someone/To give me something to eat/To be seen as a person/Not as someone else’s mess/Just to be looked in the eyes/And not seen as something less/Even just a quick hello/As you pass me on the road/Would mean the world to someone/To a youth without a home.

Carmen Ilisoi is one of the women reading. She’s with Youth Move Colorado AmeriCorps Vista, but has worked in service at Oak Tree since June. She, too, was homeless for a time in her youth – a refugee from a bad situation at home.

“Society doesn’t make it easy for youths to walk away from their homes,” she said. “But it does need to be more acceptable because a lot of these young adults and youths are trying to run from these really traumatic homes. But the world is saying, ‘No, you’re not supposed to do that.’”

Oak Tree director and founder Carie Harrison was another of the three readers. “It isn’t always easy reading these because I feel so close to the kids,” she said.

“Home” My heart is filled with hope and dreams yet my brain only sees the moment, and with every passing day though the night is only lit dimly the days always seem to be darker cause even with kids around me I still feel alone, in this earth I call my home yet a home is supposed to be a place of safety not chaos and destruction and Every time I try to leave it never works. ... I Guess home means something different than what they told me growing up. Home isn’t safe, home isn’t love. Home is destroyed trust, home is broken promises and with that I now know that no place on earth is safe but every place is home.

Youth Services Librarian Nicole Burchfield was the third woman lending her voice to read.

“The Glimpse” I am 14 and homeless shivering through the winter cold. These streets do not discriminate but I am afraid to go back home. I am wandering in the night looking for safety and warmth. During the day I attend school so as not to raise an alarm. I am drained of perseverance. This experience has left me scarred. Now I hang out with a crowd, do drugs, and steal cars. I get called a thug and do stupid stuff to get behind bars. I am running from a broken home. It’s not the streets that let me starve, a never ending story of how I fought just to survive. I am impacted in a permanent way. I have to heal on the inside, nothing can take away the trauma of cold and lonely winter nights. I am expressing emotions so you can learn to sympathize. You know that the homeless have goals they try to reach while being tried. I am 14 with my aspirations pushed aside, stealing just to eat and doing crazy things to get by. I am the awareness of homelessness on the curbside; this is real life kind of problem. I hope this helps you realize. I am a Homeless Awareness Youth, take a glimpse into our life.

From 2018-2022 there were at least 536 students enrolled in K-12 who experienced homelessness in rural Southwest Colorado, according to McKinney-Vento, a federal homeless assistance program. There were 101 homeless students in Durango School District 9-R the year before the COVID-19 outbreak. No numbers have been released since.

Art from a homeless youth in Southwest Colorado. Feeling unwanted and invisible to society is a consistent theme expressed by youths forced to flee to the streets to escape unsafe home situations. (Garrot Jaros/Durango Herald)

Oak Tree Youth Resources is applying for grants and seeking donations as it tries to realize its dream of opening an emergency youths shelter.

“As we support youths with their basic needs, mental health, education, and employment, we can make a difference in their lives and have an impact on our communities,” Harrison writes on Youth Tree’s website.

Community members can show support by donating to a youth-serving organization, volunteering, becoming a mentor or becoming a host home.

“Nothing is too big or too small in youths homelessness,” Ilisoi told those gathered at the library. “Even saying hello goes a long way. I hope as we all walk down the street that we start thinking differently about these kids on the streets. It starts here in this room.”

For more information, visit oaktreeyouthresources.org or call 335-9667. Oak tree is located at 1150 Main Ave., in Durango.


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