Kevin Persons has been homeless for roughly a quarter of his nearly 25 years. Today, he's working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and striving to transition off the streets of Denver, Colorado.
"It is a struggle to get a job even when you have a house nowadays," he said, "but when you don't have a house, trying to get a job ... is so much harder."
In Denver, Purple Door Coffee makes that a little easier. The nonprofit organization doesn't just serve java, it turns lives around. Each year since April 2013, it has selected three or four homeless teens or young adults for paid job training, reaching out to shelters such as Urban Peak, where Kevin was staying, for recommendations.
Kim Easton, who runs Urban Peak, said such community partnerships are vital to the homeless.
"When someone has lived in chronic stress and trauma for as long as these young people have, every day fighting for survival, they haven’t had the opportunity nor the example of how to learn conflict management, how to manage money, how to cook a meal, how to pay their rent, or why that is even important," she said.
Learning work and life skills
That's exactly what Purple Door offers. Co-founder and director Madison Chandler and her partner meet every week with each employee, discussing everything from customer service to mental health, "from hygiene to budgeting ... to how to do laundry," she explained.
The training continues for 52 weeks and covers just as many topics. Individuals start the program whenever they and Purple Door determine the time is right; there isn't a cohort.
After Purple Door's first year, Chandler said, the program had trained four people and helped them get jobs.
"Our very first guy that graduated from the program, he has been working at an auto parts warehouse" for more than a year, Chandler said.
Purple Door also provides a life coach to ensure that each employee has the support and skills to succeed.
Kevin had grown accustomed to getting kicked out of stores and being disrespected, he said. Now, for the first time in his life, he’s entrusted with handling money and food preparation. He’s enjoying conversations with customers and relishing the opportunity, support and love denied to so many homeless people.
"They seem to have the philosophy that they – they don't want to change us, they want to help us change ourselves," he said of Purple Door's staff.
"It has been so helpful just to have structure and to have, like, a purpose and a goal that is, like, tangible," he also said.
Denver is one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the United States. It's also among the top 10 in the size of its homeless population. An official census counted 5,812 men, women and children in city shelters or on the street one night in January 2014. More than 500 were young adults on their own, like Kevin.
For Chandler, providing these young adults with training and employment – helping them become confident and independent – is the most rewarding part of her job.
"Watching somebody start to believe in themselves, and to believe that they can achieve a life for themselves that they have dreamed of or to believe they are worth it," she said.
For Kevin, whose birthday is this month, finding both a job and a home is the best gift he can give himself.