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As law banning sleeping on state-owned land looms, homeless advocates dread results

A man experiencing homelessness looks through his belongings on Monday, May 2, 2022, under an Interstate 44 viaduct near the Dome at America’s Center in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Under a new law, homeless encampments, like the one pictured here in January 2021, would be illegal. The law bans the sleeping or camping on state-owned land. The law is set to go into effect Jan. 1.

Starting Jan. 1, sleeping, camping or having a long-term shelter on state-owned land will be illegal in Missouri.

The change is a result of a new law the Missouri legislature passed this year. The law requires cities and counties to enforce the ban and gives the attorney general the ability to act against those who don't.

With just a few days until the law goes into effect, shelters and nonprofits are preparing for how it will further burden homeless populations in the state.

Kathy Connors, executive director of Gateway180 Homeless Services, said the law has created panic and worry.

“It's definitely going to extend and stress resources that are available, particularly in the area of outreach. it's just going to create much more stress on the system,” Connors said.

For the St. Louis area, Connors said while shelters have a pretty good handle on how many beds are available, they are still likely going to fall short of the need.

“All shelters are not the same. They serve different populations, different individuals. And you just cannot simply make the request for individuals to move to shelter,” Connors said.

In some cases, changes are happening before the bill goes into effect.

“We are absolutely hearing that law enforcement is using this new law that's coming as reason to displace people already,” said Sarah Owsley, advocacy director for Empower Missouri. “While they may not be able to ticket them, they may not be able to arrest them yet, they certainly are threatening folks with doing so.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sereena Harrington, 54, sheds a tear while talking about her housing instability on May 2 under a Interstate 44 viaduct in downtown St. Louis. “I try to not think about this stuff because it hurts so bad,” she said, explaining she has faced housing instability since Aaron Alexander, her 7-year-old son, was shot and killed in the city when she was in her late 20s. “There are no places for us to go.” Missouri’s legislature passed a law making it illegal for unhoused people to sleep on state-owned property.

Owsley said these new measures are likely to make it more difficult for individuals to trust public agencies that address homelessness.

“Anything that creates a new misdemeanor, which could charge them with crimes with fees, and then put them in jail is only going to further that experience, make it more difficult to leave homelessness,” Owsley said.

In addition to banning sleeping on public land, the law makes changes regarding state funding on homelessness programs.

According to the legislation, state funds used for permanent housing projects “shall be used to assist individuals with substance use, mental health treatment, and other services like short-term housing.”

Owsley said while the law shouldn’t affect funding for many programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are some money streams that could see a change, in addition to a decrease in state funding.

“We're going to see less money into the homeless services community over this length of time. And so that's very concerning, we're already an extremely underfunded resource,” Owsley said.

The sponsors of the legislation said it's intended to provide greater resources to homeless people. Funding for permanent housing projects would be redirected to help people with substance abuse, mental health treatment and other services like short- term housing.

In speaking on the bill the day was signed into law, Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, said it puts Missouri on track to end street homelessness.

“It focuses on diverting existing resources to programs which actually work and holding those programs accountable by comparing results,” DeGroot said.

Trina Scott sits while speaking about difficult living conditions during the winter months
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Trina Scott, 43, speaks about difficult living conditions during the winter months on June 15 at a riverfront encampment of unhoused residents along Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.

Owsley said that she believes the sponsors wanted to genuinely help homeless people but that this doesn’t accomplish that goal.

“This particular legislation was not the way we would have liked that conversation to have gone. I don't think it was malicious on their part,” Owsley said.

Connors said the fact that the new law will take effect in the middle of winter is “horrific.”

“Those shelter beds are sought after in the winter,” Connors said.

There are already attempts to stop the law from being implemented. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the measure. One, filed in September, is being handled by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

Attorney Lisa D’Souza argued that the law violates the Missouri Constitution, which requires bills to pertain to only one subject and have a clear title, and that any amendments must adhere to the original purpose of the bill.

“The purpose was to make it simpler for certain counties to file their financial statements. So certainly nothing about homelessness could be connected in any way to the original purpose of the bill,” D’Souza said.

Sarah Kellogg is the Missouri Statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio

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