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Bill to ban tents from St. Louis sidewalks raises questions of legality, alderman says

Sereena Harrington, 54, sheds a tear while explaining she has fallen in and out of stable housing since her 7-year-old son, Aaron Alexander, was shot and killed in the city when she was in her late 20s
Brian Munoz
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Sereena Harrington, 54, sheds a tear while explaining she has fallen in and out of stable housing since Aaron Alexander, her 7-year-old son, was shot and killed in the city when she was in her late 20s, on Monday, from her tent under an Interstate 44 viaduct in downtown St. Louis. “I try to not think about this stuff because it hurts so bad,” Harrington said. “There are no places for us to go.”
A worker from the Missouri Department of Transportation on Monday, May 2, 2022 tosses debris cleared from an area under an Interstate 44 viaduct in downtown St. Louis where a person was living.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A worker from the Missouri Department of Transportation on Monday tosses debris cleared from an area under an Interstate 44 viaduct in downtown St. Louis, where a person was living.

Last week, an aldermanic committee gave unanimous approval to a bill that would bar people from pitching tents in public right of ways in St. Louis.

Board Bill 14, sponsored by 16th Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg, was spurred by concern about a homeless encampment near the River Des Peres in south St. Louis.

“It has grown in the past few months,” 12th Ward Alderman Bill Stephens told St. Louis on the Air. The encampment is in his ward, and he said his constituents have voiced both public safety and public health concerns about the camp of about eight people.

“There's always the concern of waste management, for sure, he added. “There's the concern of perhaps an uptick in crime or perhaps the usage of illegal substances.”

Despite these concerns, Stephens has asked the city to hold up on the bill. He’s concerned that the proposal doesn’t outline who is in charge of enforcement.

Further, Stephens has a larger concern about the debate over homelessness in St. Louis. “I think that it can put us in an uncomfortable position when we have to see [homelessness] and reflect upon ultimately the failures of our society. And that is really what's coming to the forefront in these debates about Board Bill 14.”

Said Stephens, “Someone who's experiencing homelessness is experiencing a crisis, be it a mental health crisis, be it a socioeconomic crisis, be it an XYZ crisis, we come to homelessness from a million different paths."

Ald. Bill Stephens joins St. Louis on the Air

Stephens also said the city must take into account certain legal cases, like Martin v. Boise, a 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals decision that held that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds available.

“Or more locally,” he added, “Fernandez v. St. Louis County, which ruled that panhandling was a protected civil right — not the panhandling aspect, but the usage of public space aspect.”

Furthermore, if Board Bill 14 is challenged in court and the city loses the case, Stephens said, “We can then no longer restrict or add restrictions to usage of public spaces.”

The proposal now moves to the full board. It is up for perfection this Friday.

In the meantime, Stephens said he expects the city counselor to have an opinion on the legal issues as well as an opinion from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri by the end of the week.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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