New Missouri regulation aimed toward homeless tenting faces authorized challenges


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A new law slated to take effect in 2023 will criminalize people sleeping on state lands.

The legislature now faces legal challenges in hopes of blocking the law. The Missourians who filed the lawsuit said the provision makes it dangerous for people who are already struggling to find housing, but lawmakers behind the legislation said it had no intention of turning the homeless into criminals. Instead, more resources are allocated to those who need them most.

“I don’t think this bill or any other bill is perfect, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville. “I know what we’re doing isn’t working.”

DeGroot is the sponsor of the measure contained in House Bill 1606. The Republican said this new law is a way to help people get off the streets. Instead of using state and federal funds to build affordable housing, the law requires municipalities to set up temporary camps where resources are offered.

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“It bans street camping, but at the same time, communities need to have a place to go so they can get off the street and into a safer area,” DeGroot said. “They will be screened for drug and alcohol abuse, offered programs and hopefully given a hot meal and a place to see a show, along with sanitized bathrooms.”

DeGroot said the law also requires these camps to be patrolled by law enforcement to prevent violence.

“This Housing First model just doesn’t seem to work, we’re building these camps instead,” DeGroot said. “Hopefully if you put them in these programs the vast majority of them don’t stay there forever, it’s a temporary thing.”

The law, which takes effect on January 1, prohibits sleeping on state-owned land such as under overpasses or bridges. First, a person would be faced with a written warning, after which they could face a $750 fine or a Class C misdemeanor.

“The intent of the bill isn’t to turn the homeless into criminals, it’s to help them,” DeGroot said.

The measure also allows the attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the law and could result in further penalties for local governments that lose state and federal funding for housing and homelessness.

“They’re getting to where people have to be in camps when they’re homeless to avoid potentially getting tickets or jail time,” said Jessi Honeycutt, who filed one of the lawsuits against the state. “We’re just trying to get rid of the bill before it even comes into play because if it does, it’s going to be so destructive.”

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There is also a provision in the law that prohibits cities and organizations from using state and federal grants to build permanent shelters for the homeless. Instead, the money would have to be used to build makeshift camps patrolled by police and social workers who would collect data on mental health and substance abuse.

“To me, a place with a lot of tents and a lot of mixed people in bad situations is a terrible combination of things that can happen,” Honeycutt said. “Some might be suffering from alcoholism, others from drug withdrawal. The most obvious thing for homeless people is to create affordable housing.”

Honeycutt works for a Springfield nonprofit that helps homeless people find shelter. Recently, she said, rental prices have made it difficult to find housing for people who need housing.

“I see a lot of people fighting hard and this is going to hit them hard,” Honeycutt said. “There is an increase in people being homeless and I’ve called shelter after shelter to find a place for them to sleep for the night and there isn’t a place.”

Johnathan Byrd also filed another lawsuit with the state. He used to be homeless himself and is afraid of the effects of this new law.

“There’s this misconception that being homeless is a bad decision you made, but a homeless person could be one of us on a bad day,” Byrd said. “This bill really doesn’t solve that problem; It just creates more for the government to take advantage of something that already exists, like criminalizing poverty.”

The law is expected to come into force at the beginning of the year. No hearings are currently scheduled for the lawsuits.

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