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New Missouri law makes sleeping on state land a crime for people experiencing homelessness

A woman in a heavy jacket digs through an encamapment where there are a lot of tents and debris strewn about.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
People living in a former homeless encampment at the corner of 10th and Harrison dig through their belongings earlier this year when they were alerted to a camp cleanup by the city.

Local governments can lose state or federal funding if they don’t enforce rules on unauthorized public camping, sleeping or obstructions of sidewalks. National organizations are urging HUD’s general counsel to weigh in on whether the measure violates federal policy and law.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed sweeping legislation Wednesday making it a Class C misdemeanor for people experiencing homelessness to sleep on state-owned land.

The law prevents some federal and state funds from being used to construct affordable housing, instead redirecting that money towards constructing temporary camps that provide substance abuse and mental health treatment.

It also allows the Missouri attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce laws and orders on unauthorized public camping, sleeping or obstructions of sidewalks — and threatens the loss of all state and federal funding for housing and homelessness if they don’t abide by such bans.

It goes into effect on Aug. 28.

Hundreds of homeless service providers and organizations opposed the bill this spring, saying that it criminalizes people who have to sleep outside because they have no better options.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, Chesterfield Republican 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 told The Independent in May, shortly after the legislative session ended for the year. “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.”

Now service providers 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.

“There’s been no clarity or guiding information issued from the governor’s office or from any state agencies at this point,” said Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for Empower Missouri, which advocates on behalf of low-income residents. “We have reached out to [Missouri Housing Development Commission] staff, who also similarly don’t seem to really understand it.”

Part of Missouri officials’ lack of understanding of how to implement the law, Owsley contends, stems from the fact that the legislation originated from a template bill written by a conservative think-tank in Austin, Texas, called the Cicero Institute.

The Texas group 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.

Empower Missouri and their partners across the state have been talking to 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.

Not getting answers, the National Coalition for Housing Justice sent a letter on June 27 to HUD representatives, asking for the department’s general counsel to issue a public statement on the legislation.

“If this bill becomes law, it may violate federal law and threaten local HUD grantees from obtaining millions of dollars in federal housing funding,” the letter states.

That could include the $365 million in funding for homeless services and permanent housing that HUD announced on June 22, with a set-aside of $54.5 million specifically for rural communities.

HUD representatives have yet to respond to the letter.

The measure passed as an amendment onto alarger bill only two days before the legislative session ended, shocking many advocates who had been tracking the Senate bill and its House companion that had not gotten much traction.

Now some are hoping Missouri’s congressional delegation will elevate their concerns regarding the federal government’s response to the bill.

Congresswoman Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, vowed to work together with local groups and HUD on getting clarity.

“As someone who has been unhoused, I know that fines, tickets, and jail time will not make it easier for unhoused people to afford homes or retain employment but will further devastate our communities,” Bush said in a statement to The Independent.

She also denounced the Republican legislation as a “cruel attempt to strip federal funding away from the construction of permanent housing units.”

Given the lack of affordable housing during and after the pandemic, criminalizing people who have been forced to sleep outside is “cruel and unusual punishment,” said Joel Ferber, director of advocacy for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a law firm that represents low-income clients.

“There are a lot of lawyers who are trying to figure out what this all means,” Ferber said, “but it will come down to the municipalities’ decisions on how the law applies.”

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.

And some question whether local enforcement of the law will potentially infringe on Missourians’ constitutional rights.

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.

“We will use and assess every potential tool that we have in our toolbox as lawyers and advocates,” Camp said in response to the governor signing the bill. “And litigation is certainly one of those tools that we will have to explore at this point.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.
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