JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A new law set to go into effect in 2023 will criminalize people who sleep on state-owned land.
The legislation 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 shelter, but the lawmaker behind the legislation said it wasn’t intended to turn the homeless into criminals. Instead, it will offer more resources to those who need it the most.
“I don’t think this bill or any bill is perfect, it’s the step in the right direction,” said Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville. “I do know that what we are doing isn’t working.”
DeGroot is the sponsor of the measure, which is in House Bill 1606. The Republican said this new law is a way to help people get off the street. Instead of using state and federal funds to build affordable housing, under the law, municipalities must build temporary camps offering resources.
“It outlaws street camping, but at the same time, the municipalities have to have a place for them to go, so it gets them off the street and into a safer area,” DeGroot said. “They are screened for drug and alcohol abuse, they are offered programs, and hopefully they will get a hot meal and a place to get a show along with having sanitary bathrooms.”
DeGroot said the law also requires these encampments to be patrolled by law enforcement to prevent violence.
“This housing-first model just doesn’t seem to work, we create these encampments instead,” DeGroot said. “Hopefully by getting them into these programs, the vast majority of them aren’t there forever, it’s a temporary thing.”
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, makes it illegal to sleep on state-owned land like under overpasses or bridges. At first, a person would face a written warning, then after that he or she 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 intended to help them,” DeGroot said.
The measure also allows the attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the law, and could lead to further penalties of municipalities losing state and federal funds for housing and homelessness.
“They are making it to where people will have to be in camps if they are homeless in order not to be potentially ticketed or taken to jail,” said Jessi Honeycutt, who filed one of the lawsuits against the state. “We’re just trying to eliminate the bill before it even goes into play because once it does, it’s going to be so destructive.”
There’s also a provision in the law that prohibits cities and organizations from using state and federal grants to build permanent housing for the homeless. Instead, the money must be used to build temporary camps that would be monitored by police and social workers who would collect data on mental health and substance abuse.
“A place with a bunch of tents and a lot of mixed other people in bad situations is to me, a terrible combination of things that can happen,” Honeycutt said. “Some could be experiencing alcoholism, some experiencing withdraws from drugs. The obvious thing to do for the homeless is to make more affordable housing.”
Honeycutt works for a non-profit in Springfield who helps those experiencing homelessness find shelter. Lately, she said, it’s been hard to find places for those in need of shelter because of the price of rent.
“I see a lot of people struggling hard and this will severely impact them,” Honeycutt said. “There’s an increase in people that are experiencing homelessness, and I’ve called shelter after shelter to find a place for them to sleep for the night, and there is no place.”
Johnathan Byrd also filed a lawsuit again the state. Formerly homeless himself, he’s afraid of what the impact of this new law will be.
“There is this misconception that homelessness is some bad choice you made, but a homeless person could be either 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 capitalize on something that already exists, like criminalizing poverty.”
For now, the law is set to go into effect at the first of the year. No hearings for the lawsuits have been set at this time.
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