Missouri bill banning unauthorized camping raises concerns about criminalizing homelessness
A Missouri bill would ban people from sleeping on state-owned land and allow Missouri’s attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.
Micah Titterington was among hundreds of organization leaders who opposed a measure in the Missouri legislature this year that they argue would criminalize homelessness statewide.
Modeled on legislation pushed in states across the country by a conservative nonprofit from Texas called the Cicero Institute, the Missouri bill sought to ban people from sleeping on state-owned land and allow Missouri’s attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.
But like other rural communities, Bolivar – 30 miles north of Springfield – doesn’t have a shelter, so the only choice many people have is to camp out in public lands, said Titterington, the executive director of Community Outreach Ministries in Bolivar.
“Unless additional support (both logistical and monetary) is given to small, rural communities for creating shelters and solutions, you just create a stick without a carrot – which is just abusive,” Titterington said in his written testimony to a Missouri House committee in March.
But two days before the legislative session ended, the proposal passed as an amendment on a larger bill and went to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.
Now organizations and cities are scrambling to understand what the legislation means, what benchmarks they have to meet and who is going to be in charge of enforcement.
“Our biggest questions are around how this will be implemented,” said Anthony D’Agostino, CEO of the nonprofit St. Patrick’s Center and chair of the St. Louis City Continuum of Care. “We always have questions and concerns whenever there are punitive measures in a bill.”
Among the many questions is whether the measure automatically imposes a public sleeping ban on local governments — including St. Louis, Kansas City and many other cities — that don’t currently have bans on the books.
Under the legislation, local governments could lose state funding for homelessness services if they don’t abide by the ban, unless they have a per-capita homelessness rate that’s lower than the state average. However, it’s unclear who would determine these benchmarks.
If local governments refuse to enforce the statewide ban or attempt to undo existing local laws that ban public sleeping, they could also face lawsuits from the attorney general.
A portion of the bill focuses on redirecting state funding towards designated camping areas that provide mental health services, bathrooms, security and other resources for people experiencing homelessness for a maximum two-year stay. These camps can be set up on state-owned land despite the ban.
The governor hasn’t publicly indicated whether or not he plans to sign the bill into law.
Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, who sponsored the House bill, said the legislation might not be “perfect,” but homelessness in Missouri was too dire to wait another year.
“This is truly just the first step,” he said. “I want to get to the point where we have clean quality places for homeless people to live and try to get back in society.”
‘Criminalizing a population’
Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, introduced her version of the bill in January. It didn’t get a committee hearing until March.
The committee approved it, but it never went any further. The House version of the bill didn’t fare any better.
However, in late April a bill that passed the House unanimously pertaining to county financial statements was amended in the Senate to include Rehder’s homelessness legislation.
In explaining her amendment during the Senate debate, Rehder focused solely on funding mental health services for people experiencing homelessness. She made no mention of the penalty provision in the bill that seeks to make it a Class C misdemeanor to sleep or camp on unauthorized state-owned land.
No senator spoke up in opposition to the amendment.
When the bill returned to the House floor the day before the legislature adjourned for the year, Democrats voiced their concerns.
“I have trouble with criminalizing a population as a solution,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis.
The bill passed 109-34.
The measure completely redirects state and federal funds currently used for the construction of permanent housing towards “substance use, mental health treatment, and other services, including short-term housing.”
“Focusing state resources on shelters and mental health services over free housing units is a new approach that other states have started moving to,” Rehder said during Senate debate in April.
Missouri’s legislation closely follows a model bill written by the Cicero Institute, a think-tank in Austin, Texas, that is staunchly opposed to the federal Housing First model, which prioritizes permanent, affordable housing as a solution to homelessness.
A handful of states have introduced or passed Cicero’s model bill. But Missouri is the first state to get language passed that prevents state and federal funds for homeless services to be used on permanent housing.
Missouri will be the test to see how the federal government responds to a direct attack on the Housing First initiative — the worst case scenario, advocates fear, being that Missouri loses federal funding.
When Rehder and DeGroot first introduced their bills in February, they didn’t fully define “state funds.” As part of her April amendment, Rehder defined state funds as “any funds raised by the state and federal funds received by the state for housing or homelessness, but shall not include any federal funds not able to be used for housing programs pursuant to this section due to federal statutory or regulatory restrictions.”
The addition of federal funds to the definition raised a red flag for Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for Empower Missouri, which advocates on behalf of low-income residents.
Owsley and others have been talking with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for months, trying to get answers on exactly what federal money would be off limits for permanent housing — and whether the measure would put Missouri out of compliance with the Housing First requirements, jeopardizing federal funding.
“And it’s important to remember that we are nowhere near meeting the need for permanent supportive housing,” Oswley said.
When the legislative session paused for spring break in March, the bill sponsors and Cicero representatives toured an encampment in Austin called Camp Esperanza.
It’s a 150-person state-sanctioned encampment, managed by The Other Ones Foundation, that offers case management, hygiene facilities, and a community center with mail and internet access. Working with service providers, the foundation provides food access, mental and physical health resources.
The camp receives state funding, which is allowed under the law Texas legislators passed last year.
DeGroot fervently wanted to bring Camp Esperanza’s success to Missouri, and he put his faith in the Cicero Institute’s “reducing street homelessness” road map to get there, he said.
The part of his bill that DeGroot’s most excited about, he told The Independent, is that nonprofits and municipalities will be able to apply for grants from Missouri Housing Development Corporation to support encampments like Austin’s.
And while he didn’t like the criminalization aspect of the bill, Cicero leaders assured him that few arrests have occurred after Texas passed its bill. Texans now face a fine of up to $500 and a Class C misdemeanor if they camp in public spaces.
“I’m not at all interested in turning homeless people into criminals,” DeGroot said. “The way I am able to justify that part of the bill is we have to have some way to get homeless people into these places where they can get qualified help. And in my estimation, without that, the bill would be meaningless.”
While Cicero uses Camp Esperanza’s success as a way to sell their model bill to touring legislators like DeGroot and Rehder, the manager of the camp is opposed to criminalization measures — and called investing in permanent housing the “only really humane and dignified answer.”
“We need to make the big investments in public housing, low-barrier public housing and affordable housing,” said Chris Baker, founder of the Other Ones Foundation during a press conference last year.
Not a one size fits all
D’Agostino, who leads the largest provider of homeless services in Missouri, sat down with Rehder to talk about her bill this spring.
They agreed that high-dollar construction of affordable housing can be an inefficient use of housing funds. And cities like St. Louis need low-barrier-entry outdoor encampments, where people with dogs, night jobs or other unique circumstances won’t be turned away from typical shelters, he said.
In St. Louis, service providers and city administration are closer than they’ve ever been at finalizing a plan and raising funding for a stable, supported encampment like Austin’s – after years of trying. Now the hold up is finding land.
“Most people don’t want a community of unhoused individuals around them,” he said. “Finding a spot and getting the community and political buy-in in that area, it’s just not easy.”
And while the encampments might work in cities with a variety of service providers and resources, Titterington said it won’t in the rural areas, he said. Finding housing is their main focus.
“So if you’re limiting funding for construction of permanent housing, which is a type of housing, that just takes one option off the table for us,” Titterington said.
Lack of affordable housing is among the leading causes of homelessness in Bolivar and other rural areas, he said.
“There’s just simply no place to rent that’s affordable,” Titterington said, “because if you find a place for under $500 or $600 a month to rent, it’s probably not a place you want to live.”
In a time where Missouri is receiving unprecedented federal relief funds, cities won’t be able to make game-changing moves to increase affordable housing. HUD has created a technical assistance/peer mentoring program to encourage communities to use relief funding for permanent housing.
“They are missing a tremendous opportunity for using these funds in a way that many smaller communities could actually permanently end street homelessness,” said Eric Tars, legal director of National Homelessness Law Center. “It’s really harmful.”
A fine blue line
Titterington said he was speaking with a local officer who said that people who are experiencing homelessness already don’t trust law enforcement to guide them to available resources they need.
Titterington said the officer told him being forced to hand out citations will further discourage them from talking to or trusting the police.
“And if you have larger cities like Springfield that do start cracking down, where are those folks gonna go?” he said. “We end up having folks that come from larger cities to rural areas because there is less patrolling.”
One of the biggest challenges of this bill, DeGroot said, is that it doesn’t allocate more state funding to increase shelter beds, short-term housing or encampment services. And it’s possible some groups that received state grant funding from MHDC in previous years will lose out to applications for encampments.
Despite Missouri having a historic budget surplus of nearly $3 billion, DeGroot said his bill wouldn’t have succeeded if he asked the Republican-majority legislature for an increase in homeless service funding.
“Even though the state had government funds, there simply is no appetite to throw money at problems in the past that has proven, particularly with this issue, to be ineffective,” he said. “We need accountability for the organizations providing the services, and I believe this bill does.”
Without more beds or housing options, the measure opens up the state and local governments to legal challenges.
In the 2018 Boise v. Martin case, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Ninth District ruled that people cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.
Lee Camp, staff attorney with the St. Louis nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders, said attorneys and advocates statewide will be working to nail down the number of available beds on a specific night. And if there aren’t enough beds, Camp said, any citation or jail time will violate that Boise precedent.
“You can write laws all day…and say, ‘Well, they’re not unconstitutional in their face,’” Camp said. “The way we apply those laws can squarely bring us into unconstitutional actions to violate people’s civil rights.”
This fine line puts almost all the pressure on law enforcement.
“Are there even going to be camp beds for folks who need them in an adequate way?” Owsley said. “And can we trust every law enforcement officer who sees this law to understand that nuance?”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.