This summer, Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation that would make it a crime to sleep on state-owned land without authorization. Advocates across Missouri have raised concerns about how this could affect homeless communities.
House Bill No. 1606 makes using state-owned lands for unauthorized sleeping, camping or the construction of long-term shelters a class C misdemeanor. The first offense will result in a warning, and no citation shall be issued unless the individual refuses to move.
On Sept. 6, housing justice advocates and taxpayers filed a lawsuit challenging the new law. Amanda Schneider, the managing attorney of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said the group filed the lawsuit on behalf of the three plaintiffs who have concerns as individual taxpayers in Missouri about the unconstitutionality of the bill itself.
“We have concerns about how that may criminalize the unhoused, those who are already facing barriers to seeking permanent housing,” Schneider said. “It will only further harm that population as they try to move on from homelessness.”
Schneider has been working with homelessness issues almost her entire career. Her involvement in filing the lawsuit was sparked by not only her profession but by the three plaintiffs.
“The three individual plaintiffs are not only taxpayers, they are also housing justice advocates and are also formerly homeless,” Schneider said. “We had concerns brought to us by the individual plaintiffs but we have concerns as Legal Services of Eastern Missouri about how this law may impact other clients of our legal services and those who have not even come to us statewide.
The new law is set to go into effect on Jan. 1. Schneider said if that happens, it would essentially mean going back to criminalizing homelessness.
“Making it a crime to sleep outside or be unhoused essentially would only further create barriers to our clients who are seeking more permanent housing,” Schneider said. “The other concern is the use of state funds being diverted away from solutions that we know that housing experts confirm is the way to solve homelessness.”
Schneider said she believes there are shared concerns among many people about the implementation of this law and the effect it will have on the homeless population.
“Depending on how the lower court decides this matter, it may go before the Missouri Supreme Court,” Schneider said. “It’s a little bit of a waiting game. There was also another lawsuit filed by a nonprofit provider, The Gathering Tree, out of Springfield, so there are now two lawsuits that have been filed in Missouri on this issue.”
Community Missions Corporation, a St. Joseph nonprofit that works to provide shelter and services for homeless individuals, also expressed concerns about the measure.
“House Bill 1606 would really displace a lot of individuals that are already displaced,” said Kayla Hall, care coordinator at Community Missions. “Basically, it will state that individuals in general cannot camp, sleep or build a structure on state property. So then where are those individuals going to go? Here in town, we do not have an emergency shelter or anywhere for those individuals to go. So we really will be taking away the only place that they have.”
Hall said if a homeless person does receive a charge from this new law, it would create another hurdle for case managers.
“From my understanding, if they’re found living on state property, they would receive one warning and after that they could receive a Class C misdemeanor,” Hall said. “That’s going to create another barrier that case managers like us down here at CMC would have to help them overcome because they already have these issues stopping them from being housed and we’re just going to be adding another one to it.”
Hall emphasized the number of people that this law could affect.
“Recently, within a two-day period, another case manager and I went out to do outreach to pass out hygiene kits and just make contact with some of these homeless individuals,” Hall said. “In that short two-day period, we contacted over 149 homeless individuals just here in St. Joe living on the street. That’s a pretty big number, and we know there’s more out there.”
Community Missions spent almost $8,000 on bus tickets for homeless individuals to leave the St. Joseph area to seek help in locations with more shelters.
“Since November, we’ve sent approximately 46 people out on buses to either reconnect with family or the area they’re from,” said Shelia Mendez, street outreach coordinator for Community Missions. “We have people passing through here who think there is an emergency shelter here when there hasn’t been one for quite a while.”