Grant helps bring mental health resources to homeless youth

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Youth experiencing homelessness is a growing issue in Colorado Springs, and a local nonprofit is working to bring help to young adults living on the streets.

Urban Peak Colorado Springs recently won a grant that will help make mental health resources more easily accessible for homeless youth.

“So the whole idea is to start to create more opportunity for healthy transitions so a youth has a better chance of getting off the streets,” said Shawna Kemppainen, Urban Peak’s executive director.

The nonprofit will be awarded about $1 million over the next five years to pay for three more staff members. Two of those workers will be mental health clinicians who will work directly with the young people in other programs to build relationships with them, according to Kemppainen.

“Youth will be more apt to start to engage in that kind of help when they know the person, when they feel comfortable and when they feel safe,” Kemppainen said.

Numbers show that homelessness in Colorado Springs is a growing problem among young people.

“We saw, once again, an uptick in the number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness,” Kemppainen said. “It went up by about 14 percent compared with last year.”

Urban Peak will work with about 700 homeless youth this year, according to Kemppainen, and about half will have a mental health or substance abuse issue. Often, those issues go untreated when young people are living on the streets.

“When a youth is on the street really having to contend with surviving day to day: ‘Where am I going to sleep? Are there safe people around? Where am I going to get my next meal? Can I get into the shelter? Is there enough space?’ When they’re contending with those right-up-in-front-of-their-face survival issues, it’s hard for them to think about, ‘Oh right, I should maybe see a therapist,’” Kemppainen said. “That’s sort of the last thing on their mind.”

With two mental health specialists embedded into Urban Peak’s programs, it will be easier for youth to turn to someone for help.

“With young people experiencing homelessness, it doesn’t really work well all the time to say, ‘2 o’clock Thursday. Be at this appointment at this address,’” Kemppainen said. “So having the mental health support available right when it’s needed with people they know is the goal, the outreach of this project.”

The hope is that if Urban Peak can reach homeless youth now, it will benefit our whole community in the future.

“We know when we invest now and can build interventions with youth to get them off the street, what that does in the future is prevents adult homelessness,” Kemppainen said. “When we help youth change their trajectory and get off the street, that’s going to make everything in our city better.”

11 News partner The Gazette is holding a community conversation over the topic of mental health Wednesday night. Click here for details.