Missouri's new law criminalizing homelessness is already causing 'uncertainty and fear'
A law passed last year made sleeping on state-owned land a misdemeanor in Missouri. It went into effect Jan. 1, but critics say there is still a lack of clarity from the state surrounding its implementation — and a lack of resources to actually help unhoused residents.
Audra Youmans says most people living on the streets of St. Louis have nowhere else to go.
As a volunteer and advocate with St. Louis Winter Outreach, she made over 40 calls to the city’s referral service for homeless shelters last year — recording and compiling a video to demonstrate the problem.
“Every single time I’ve called, they’ve told me everything is full,” Youmans said.
A lack of available shelter for those experiencing homelessness is not new, or unique to St. Louis.
Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for Empower Missouri, which advocates on behalf of low-income residents, said there is “nowhere in Missouri that has adequate shelter beds to meet the needs for people who are currently outdoors,” and many areas have no available beds at all.
But that deficit has taken on new meaning in light of a new law advocates say criminalizes homelessness across the state.
Since Jan. 1, it is a Class C misdemeanor for those experiencing homelessness in Missouri to camp on state-owned land. Cities that don’t enforce the ban, or that refuse to enforce existing local ordinances on public camping, can be sued by Missouri’s attorney general.
Proponents of the law say these provisions would reduce the prevalence of encampments which they believe are dangerous for the unhoused people living there, as well as their communities. Those opposed contend the law risks worsening a crisis.
Some advocates and providers worry that this new law could provide blanket justification for law enforcement to intensify harassment of unhoused people. Youmans said she and other providers haven’t been given instructions regarding what land will be subject to these new penalties, or guidance from the city about whether they will enforce the law.
“The fear is that there are no shelters, so what are the options?” Youmans asked.
Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, filed a bill to repeal the homelessness law. She said “folks already having a hard time engaging in society — adding fines on top…is not going to improve that situation.”
The law also prevents some state and federal funds from being used for permanent supportive housing, instead diverting it to temporary housing and substance use and mental health treatment — in an effort its supporters said would be more effective than focusing on affordable housing.
Quade said in conversations with community leaders in Springfield, she has heard concern from nonprofits that their funding could be in jeopardy, and ambiguity remains about how organizations should proceed through seemingly-conflicting federal and state guidance.
“I would say it goes even beyond concern,” Quade said. “Some organizations have expressed they might even have to close their doors.”
Belle DeLaCruz, communications coordinator at Missouri Balance of State Continuum of Care, an organization of member groups in Missouri working to end homelessness, said she is concerned the law will push unhoused people out of sight and further away from resources.
“People who want to help them can’t find them,” DeLaCruz said. “And then it really looks like the law is doing something positive because we can’t ‘see them,’ but really they’re just hiding.”
The state’s new homelessness law, which passed last year and went into effect this month, was the object of widespread opposition from hundreds of advocates and providers at the time.
Nearly seven months later, many of the same questions raised when the legislature was debating the issue remain unanswered.
Observers hoped a lawsuit challenging the measure could prevent it from going into effect, but the main case — filed in Cole County by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in September — continues to stretch on.
“We’re certainly hearing from community partners that many of our cities and local law enforcement are not really sure how to enforce the new law,” Owsley said.
For one, law enforcement might need to become “really familiar” with state land divisions to appropriately enforce the law’s language, Owsley said. It’s unclear whether the penalties will apply only to those on land owned by the state, or whether the law could be read to more widely encompass land within the state.
That ambiguity could put “a lot of responsibilities on law enforcement officers in every interaction to sort of decide how they’re going to respond,” Owsley added.
Amanda Schneider, one of the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorneys suing the state, said their concern is primarily with the unhoused people most directly affected by the law.
“If you are an unhoused person, how do you know if it’s a state-owned freeway?” she asked. “If you’re sleeping out in the park, is this considered state-owned property or not?”
A handful of cities and police departments in the state contacted by The Independent did not offer many details about how they plan to enforce the law, now that it is in effect.
Annie Gibson, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said by email that Missouri’s prosecutors “know homelessness is a serious issue” and that “homeless camps on state property and elsewhere often become dangerous places for those affected” — and said prosecutors have a duty to enforce laws created by the legislature.
“Certainly, we hope that community resources can provide resources and alternatives to those who might face prosecution under this statute,” Gibson said.
In an email to The Independent, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said he is “committed to enforcing the law as written.
“This particular statute is intended to ensure that communities are providing appropriate services to remedy homelessness,” Bailey said. “My office stands ready to assist in those efforts under the new law.”
Advocates say they do not yet know which state funds will be diverted from permanent housing efforts. The bill did not appropriate any new funds for the temporary measures it outlined such as substance abuse treatment, but only added restrictions to existing funds.
The state law is at odds with federal guidance, which supports the creation of affordable housing as a solution to homelessness.
A spokesperson for the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which is in charge of administering state and federal housing assistance programs, declined to answer questions on how the agency expects state funding sources to be affected, citing pending litigation.
In a letter to MHDC from the federal Housing and Urban Development in September, obtained by The Independent, the agency said it “does not interpret state laws, but is generally concerned about state laws that may improperly restrict or result in the misuse of HUD funds.”
In an email to The Independent, a spokesperson for HUD said the agency “encourages communities to address homelessness by sticking to evidence-based and cost-effective solutions, namely, solutions that help people resolve their homelessness by obtaining stable permanent housing.”
Last year, those opposed to the bill suggested that it was crafted without the input of statewide providers and advocates.
The ideas contained in the legislation had their origins not in Jefferson City, but in Austin, Texas, home to the conservative think tank Cicero Institute, which produced the template legislation Missouri largely reproduced.
Cicero is staunchly opposed to the federal Housing First model, which prioritizes permanent, affordable housing as the entry-point for solving homelessness. Instead, Cicero advocates for short-term shelter and prioritizing treatment of substance use and mental health.
Citywide bans on public camping have been increasing from 2006 to 2019, areport from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found, and Missouri is one of a handful of states to have adopted a state ban in recent years.
Both Texas and Tennessee have also adopted statewide bans on homeless encampments. Cicero was most closely involved in Missouri, Judge Glock, who worked at Cicero and helped write the template bill, said in an interview with The Independent.
Glock now works at another conservative think tank, The Manhattan Institute.
“In terms of the [Cicero] model bill,” Glock said, “Missouri is the only state that has really adopted something close to it.”
At Cicero, they argue that the camping ban along with encouragement of temporary support would encourage self-sufficiency and decrease violence, to “help the homeless get back on their feet,” according to their website.
Glock said that he interprets the language of the Missouri law to allow law enforcement to enforce the law on “fairly limited” state-owned land. He said only cities that are “actively refusing” to enforce their laws would be subject to potential action by the attorney general.
On the funding confusion, he said the law, by allowing funding to be spent on alternatives to housing, “authorizes alternatives rather than restricting state funds,” and “opens up more possibilities,” but those will depend on future appropriations.
Bruce DeGroot, former Chesterfield Republican who sponsored the House bill, said last year that the legislation might not have been “perfect” but was a “first step,” continuing: “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,” he said. (Co-sponsor, Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, could not be reached for comment.)
Many of the advocates on the ground are waiting with bated breath to see whether clarification comes from the lawsuit against the state, and are watching to see how law enforcement will interpret the law.
“It just leaves a lot up in the air,” Youmans said, “and a lot of uncertainty and fear.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.