Mark Kirchhoff is the homeless youth program coordinator for Rainbow House in Columbia, and Kelsey Louder is the former shelter director.
They spoke about the misconceptions others may have about what homelessness in a youth population looks like.
Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org.
Mark Kirchhoff: I think, to me, the biggest misconception that I try and, I guess, educate people on is what a homeless youth looks like.
Everybody associates homelessness with looking impoverished, looking skinny, looking malnourished, things like that, but really, it's, I mean, I think my biggest thing is when I first came into the homeless youth program and was working with the kids, I realized that these were kids I passed every day in high school in the hallways.
They had nice backpacks. Some of them came from, you know, maybe came from money. Not many. Most of them were from some pretty low-income families for the most part, but they looked... they were still teenagers that could find resources and wanted to look okay in school and, you know, they may have speakers that are just a couple years older than everybody else.
But it was just that - you can't identify a homeless youth based upon your preconceptions of what homelessness looks like and I think that was the biggest kind of shock for me - an eye opener. You know, I passed people every day that didn't know where they were going to sleep that night or didn't know where the next meal was coming from.
I think that raised my awareness, but for the most part, our high school kids, you know, they're couchsurfing, they're moving from home to home, they're with friends, you know, or their families are in doubled up situations that are very unstable, and that's what it really looks.
It doesn't necessarily have to be, you know, them sleeping on the streets, and I think kind of redefining that definition - I don't know if that's really a saying - but like taking a closer look at what defines a youth as being homeless, and it's that instability and that sense of chaos that really defines somebody as homeless. So...
Kelsey Louder: Yeah. I feel like we've talked about a lot that it can almost - in areas like Columbia - it can almost be harmful if we tell too many stories...
Kelsey: ...that aren't reflective of what it actually looks like. So, like, I want people to know that it is possible that a youth could be sleeping on a park bench or that a youth could be, you know, sleeping in an abandoned building or whatever.
I want people to know that that's real, but I feel like if you only tell those stories, then people who just aren't, I mean, this isn't there every day, aren't going to realize that just as much - if not more - we need to be helping those youth who are couchsurfing and all those things you described because they are a majority of the youth we see.
And if they're sleeping at a friend's house, even though it's unstable, hopefully it's a little safer than sleeping on the street, and we can hopefully keep them safe for a little longer while we're trying to connect them to something more stable.
But if we just ignore them and wait for a youth to call us and say, "I slept on a park bench last night," we could be waiting for a while, and we're just not helping those who really need it.