This Revolutionary Coffee Shop Only Employs Homeless Teenagers

Discover the secret life of "Street Kids". See the way they live, how they ended up homeless, and what's being done to help them.

This is Joe: 

Joe was kicked out of his house by his mother when he was just 11 years old. 

With nowhere to go and nowhere to stay Joe became one of the  hundreds of faceless youth in Denver, Colorado known as “Street Kids”. 

This is their story. 

The title of “Street Kid” may sound derogatory but it is actually a self-chosen title. Thousands of  people,  in almost every major city, from ages five to fifty willingly identify themselves as “Street Kids."

“A street Kid is someone who identifies themselves with the culture of the streets. They might have a couch to crash on at night but every minute they’re not in school or at work they’re downtown participating in street culture”. 

The above quote comes from twenty seven year old Mark Smesrud. 

Smesrun is the co-founder of Denver’s Purple Door Coffee, and his life is just as much tied to street culture as Joe’s. 

When Smesrud was 24 years old he moved to Denver and, together with co-founder Madison Chandler, they opened Purple Door Coffee; a  high-end nonprofit coffee shop that exclusively hires, trains, and transitions the homeless youth of Denver. 

“When I was in college I fell in love with Street Kids”  Smesrud said, “These are kids who have been told for their entire life that they don’t matter, that they won’t amount to anything, that they have no future. We wanted to do something to help change that. To help give them a future."

Purple Door hires two-three Street Kids into a one year job development course within the coffee shop. The goal of this program is to give the new-hire the tools to find steady employment after they leave Purple Door, and to maintain that new job as long as possible. 

The world that these Street Kids come from is a carefully constructed world of hierarchies and factions according to Smesrud. And we’ve summarized these levels below. 

Gutter Punks:  The highest level of authority on the streets. The gutter punk movement began in Seattle and has since spread down the West Coast to Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles; and across the country to Austin, New York, and Denver. 

Gutter Punks fully embrace street culture and are committed to their homeless lifestyle. They have also been on the streets the longest and are therefore treated with the most respect by the other factions. 

Oogles: Street Kid slang for someone who is new to the streets. This is the lowest ranking faction on the Street Kid totem pole. Oogles are usually quite young and life for them can be very difficult and violent while they adapt to the culture and attempt to put in the year or two of time that is necessary for them to earn greater respect. 

Juggalos: The term “Juggalo” has become somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon in the past few years. It usually conjures up an image of an overweight teen with black and white makeup applied to their face to affect a clown mask. 

However, Juggalo on the streets is simply a term for a sub-set of Street Kid that has become enamored with an umbrella obsession. 

For most Juggalos this means either the rap group ICP (Insane Clown Posse), or Three 6 Mafia. 

“The these groups exist is that these kids have a deep need to belong to something. They’ve lost that from their families and so they look for it on the streets” Smesrud explained. 

In the experience of Purple Door Coffee there are three major catalysts that drive someone to become a Street Kid: 

Aging Out: According to watchdog group

“As time goes by, the prospects for landing in a safe, loving, permanent homes grow dimmer for foster youth. Many will simply ‘age out’ of the system when they turn 18, without a family and without the skills to make it on their own”

Mark explained that 80% of children who age out of foster care will experience homelessness at some point in their lives. 

Runaways: These are typically underage children who have fled either their parents or a foster home due to mistreatment or trauma. According to Smesrud, runaways are the hardest to approach as they are often full of mistrust for any authority figure they encounter. 

Generational Homelessness: Homelessness can be an inherited trait in families. Smesrud has met at least one Street Kid whose mother and grandmother were both homeless as well. 

Two years ago Joe was living in his brother’s house trying to remain sober and out of trouble. 

“I knew I needed to get a job” Joe said, “Boredom leads to old habits."

Joe had become familiar with Purple Door through their parent nonprofit Dry Bones. He applied for the position and won it outright. 

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Despite the fact that most employees are only kept on for one year, Smesrud and his staff decided to retain Joe and promote him to a management position. 

“They promoted me because I was the best candidate” said Joe with obvious and hard-won pride, “I was never late, I never took a day off, and I didn’t even take a sick day”. 

Joe is now enrolled in a community college pursuing a business management degree and  is planning to rent his first apartment in the next few weeks. 

Purple Door Coffee is just one link in a chain that needs to be built to protect these children and give them the life they deserve. 

Purple Door is currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to purchase a coffee roaster. Roasting their own coffee will give them the revenue to open more stores and hire more Street Kids like Joe. 


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