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Mid-Missouri schools, volunteers try to help large numbers of homeless children


Children who arrive at Rainbow House are almost always facing personal battles.

Some have signs of depression and some are diagnosed with it. Some have been diagnosed with PTSD, says Angelayah Carter, the Rainbow House shelter program director.

"We kind of have to learn them to find coping strategies," Carter says on a recent day at Rainbow House.

The not-for-profit organization is just one of many in Mid-Missouri trying to help the hundreds of children who are trying to learn while having less than stable situations at home.

Rainbow House is a children's emergency shelter and regional child advocacy center based in Columbia. Melissa Faurot has been involved with the organization for the last 16 years and has served as Rainbow House's executive director for the last two.

She says she's seen an increase in homeless families contacting Rainbow House for help.

Rainbow House has 18 beds for children but is in the middle of construction and is upgrading to 32 beds.

As a child advocacy center, the organization serves 11 counties in Mid-Missouri. But as a shelter, Rainbow House serves any county in Missouri.

"In the shelter, we kind of function as a home," Carter said. "We try to be as close to a normal home-like schedule as possible, just because sometimes it can be a little sad to be in a place that's not your home."

Carter says children typically start their day with breakfast and hygiene. If they attend classes, staff will take them to their school.

Getting an education

During the 2021-2022 school year, public schools identified more than 1.2 million homeless students, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state had 32,969 students who were considered homeless that year.

"Post-COVID, I think we've really seen a huge increase in our students who are in housing transition and we've seen rents go up," Columbia Public Schools Chief Equity Officer Carla London said. "Sometimes our families are being notified that within 30 days the rent's going to increase by $500 and families just aren't prepared for that."

London said CPS has 439 students who are considered homeless and don't have a permanent place to sleep. Even though she says the number has "pretty much doubled in the last few years," she says that number is still likely an undercount.

"Unfortunately there is still a stigma around that," London said. "We do have resources that we can provide families, but it's difficult to come forward."

Those resources include clothing, buddy packs for food on the weekends and transportation to school.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed into law in 1987 and establishes the definition of a homeless child in schools who qualifies for additional services from a school district.

The law defines a homeless child as one who does not have a "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This includes children who are sharing housing with other family members due to financial hardships or youth who are living in shelters, cars or hotels.

Adolescence and young adulthood can also create special challenges for homeless youth.

"These are really critical years to development," said Beatrice Stewart, executive director of Flourish. "Your brain isn't fully developed until you're 25."

Flourish is a non-profit created by Veteran's United which serves youth 16 to 24 years old.

A 19-year-old living at Flourish in Columbia praised the organization in an interview with ABC 17 News. Flourish leaders agreed to the interview if ABC 17 News did not identify the teen out of privacy concerns.

"Ever since I was here my first day, they came in with smiles. they're respectful, they're accountable, and they're very sweet people that you don't always meet on the streets," the teen said.

They said they've been in Columbia for around 10 months after bouncing around in Indiana. They said "a lot of mental health issues and not having a safe place to live" is what led them to Flourish.

Things like having access to birth certificates and other legal documents are routine for most people. Not for homeless kids, though. Those are among a litany of needs.

"This is the first place I actually felt safe. I felt comfortable. I felt like I was actually wanted," the teen said. "They help provide documents that I would need to not be homeless and also be able to function and be able to make something out of my life."

Stewart says she believes homelessness has increased during her 15 years of working in the foster care sector. She chalks that up in large part to a low stock of affordable housing.

"I think it's a whole community problem and not just one person's problem," Stewart says.

Flourish has opportunities like its $aves Program, which helps youth save money for their future, and an internship program that gets individuals involved in the workforce and set them up for later in life.

"I think the youth really see this as a benefit and a stepping stone to them becoming independent and moving towards adulthood," Stewart said. "They get paid and while they're learning professional and personal development skills, they have a mentor and then we have emergency basic needs services for youth in the community as well."

During the interview with ABC 17 News, the 19-year-old broke down in tears because of how appreciative they were of Flourish and the people working there.

"I've done a lot that has hurt my life and hurt other people's lives but you know, this program gives you a second chance at a lot of things," the teen said.

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Meghan Drakas

Meghan joined ABC 17 News in January 2021.
The Penn State grad is from the Philadelphia suburbs where she interned with several local TV stations.


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