Denver Dry Bones nonprofit makes homeless outreach personal
It’s a Thursday evening and 50 to 60 "street kids" are piling onto a bus. Mostly teenagers and into their 20s, their living situations range from "couch surfing," that is, crashing with friends, to abject homelessness, sleeping under bridges.
Today, they’re going bowling.
The scene repeats every Thursday, and volunteers like Laura, who asked that we not use her last name, help make it happen. Laura is a volunteer with Dry Bones, a Denver-based, Christian nonprofit that reaches out to the street kids of Denver. For her, that means chartering a bus to carry them from downtown Denver to Bowlero Lanes in Lakewood where, every week, they rent out ten lanes. When it’s time to come back, she and other Dry Bones volunteers provide a free meal.
It’s an unusual sounding approach, but Laura says turnout has grown, forcing them to book more and more lanes. "The word just spreads that Dry Bones is going to take you bowling," she says.
It is, of course, but one part of Dry Bones’ overall work. But to get to know the street kids – whom Dry Bones members don’t hesitate to call their friends – she says, it’s important. Their work isn’t measured by the hour, but by months and years.
Dry Bones staff member Matt Wallace can explain why. "Most of our friends have suffered some form of abuse," he says. "A somewhat typical story is to get passed from mom (who is addicted to cocaine) to grandpa (who sexually molests) to a foster parent (who is just looking for a paycheck) to a group home (where another young person acts out the abuse that has been done to them). More often than not, they get to a place where they say, ‘I can do a better job raising myself than anyone else has ever done.’"
This decision, he says, leads kids to the streets, and often to drug addiction.
The road to recovery is a long one, but it’s not as simple as throwing money or services at the problem. "They don’t trust you," Laura says. "They don’t trust you for months on end. They don’t think you really care about them."
To Dry Bones staff, that relationship is the first step, and if it takes months for street kids, who’ve been wronged by life at every turn, to open up to a grown adult like Laura, they’re prepared.
"We hope that there is not one young person living on the streets that can legitimately say or believe, ‘There’s no one in this world that loves me,’" said Wallace.
It’s only after that long struggle that most street kids will have enough trust to ask for the help they need. "Someone’s going to get help if they want help," she says. "If you try to force it, it’s not going to work."
In the meantime Dry Bones staff and volunteers do what they can to keep their friends safe and healthy.
That can include visits in jail or the hospital, 12-step meetings, public feedings and family-style meals at the table and even help acquiring documents like birth certificates and social security cards. For kids who have, as far as the public is concerned, fallen off of the face of the earth, it’s an important step to getting back on their feet.
But there’s also the unconventional, odd acts of outreach here and there – things that fall well outside most peoples’ ideas of the role of charity. Laura mentions, in particular, a photography class and exhibit of their photos.
"I was like, ‘photography?’" she recalls. "’They need a house! They don’t need to take pictures!’ … That exhibit, what it did for the people who had photos, it was huge. I ate my words so much after that."
In Laura’s line of work, those victories are rare and hard-won.
"In my orientation," she says, "they had a guy who was interning for a year. He said ‘the best way I can describe it is watching paint dry. If you’re coming in expecting to volunteer, walk away feeling like ‘I’ve changed somebody’s life,’ it’s not going to happen.’ It’s such a slow process. You should not be in it for yourself."
To date, the Dry Bones program has drawn so much attention that volunteers have been turned away. Church youth groups must even compete in a lottery system for weeklong visits in the summer. For more information, or to donate to Dry Bones, go to http://drybonesdenver.org.