Rainbow House efforts heat up as temperatures drop

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COLUMBIA- As the weather gets colder it’s important to stay bundled up. But for some people in Columbia, this isn’t a possibility.

Youth homelessness is an issue Rainbow House is looking to spread awareness.  

Rainbow House is a nonprofit organization that aims to keep children safe and support families in crisis through prevention, assessment, and intervention. 

Mark Kirchhoff is the Outreach Case Manager at Rainbow House and works to find adolescents, mainly between the ages of 16 and 17, who need a warm place to stay.

This particular age group is important because for a variety of homeless shelters throughout Columbia, the person is required to be 18 years old. This leaves out a hefty demographic of homeless residents in the community, and that is where Rainbow House steps in.

"We work with guidance counselors and youth in high schools," Kirchhoff said. "We want them to know that if you know someone in this situation you can tell them you've heard of Rainbow House and to give us a call."

As temperatures gradually fall the motivation to help as many kids as possible heats up.

"If they're on the streets in below freezing temperatures obviously there's a risk for death," Kirchhoff said. "So we do operate on maybe a more emergency level where if we need to bring them in we'll get them resources and try to get them stabilized at that point." 

Regardless of the weather conditions or season, Kirchoff said Rainbow House always tries to operate with urgent care. 

"There are a lot more services available for people who are 18 and older," Kirchoff said. 

Kirchhoff said one of his main priorities is to try and prevent at-risk youth from becoming homeless. He hopes to lower the numbers of homeless youth by speaking about prevention at city council meetings, schools and other public educational platforms.

Although Rainbow House does what it can to spread awareness and inform people of the services they offer, when it comes to finding youth who need assistance they largely have to wait for the kids to come to them.

Kirchhoff said one way to encourage youth to seek help if they need it is to lose the public stigma surrounding homelessness. 

"The idea is sometimes that it's somebody who doesn't want to follow the rules or maybe do drugs or are bad kids and don't want to work," Kirchhoff said. "I think we really need to change the idea, a paradigm shift of what we consider and what we know in that community."

A great way to break the stigma is to volunteer and spend time around the homeless community to gain a better understanding. 

"You're able to see they are kids just like you and I, that have been through in most cases a lot of trauma and are working through that and trying to survive," Kirchhoff said. 

Rainbow House is planning on expanding its outreach services to the community and error more on the prevention side of youth homelessness by working closely with schools and other resources to help kids in neeed. 

"We really want to try and work with youth before they need our full transitional living services," Kirchhoff said. 

Ultimately, Kirchhoff said communities must work together to combat youth homelessness by evaluating and assisting at-risk youth and referring those in need to facilities equipped to care for them.