Springfield police to ramp up enforcement of homeless-related ordinances

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 6:29 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Starting the week of September 13 Springfield Police will start cracking down on repeat offenders of laws associated with the homeless. It comes after recent concerns about the growing homeless problem brought up by citizens and the city council.

“This issue is not unique to Springfield,” said Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams. “It’s everywhere in the country.”

But it is certainly evident to anyone who travels around the city. Panhandlers along many major thoroughfares, homeless camps popping up at various locations and even signs saying “No Camping” underneath a railroad overpass just north of Commercial Street on Lyon.

At a recent city council meeting resident Stephen Sexton spoke of many neighbors, especially on the north and west sides of town, who were concerned about the increasing problems with the homeless population ranging from squatters to trespassing to police doing nothing more than issuing tickets to people who would just turn around and do the same thing somewhere else.

“This homeless squatter situation is decimating our neighborhoods,” he told the council. “If we want to be known as the ‘Homeless Center’ in this country, so be it. But you’re going to lose hundreds of good property owners who don’t want to spend their last years fighting situations like this.”

His remarks brought a number of replies from city council members, many expressing their agreement that something should be done but reminding everyone that the homeless had their rights too.

“I’ve listening to the people and their frustration and this has to stop,” said councilman Abe McGull. “It’s at a point of being a crisis to our neighborhoods.”

“I agree those who commit crimes should be held responsible for their actions,” added councilwoman Heather Hardinger. “But I do not condone criminalizing homelessness. Incarceration cannot be our primary solution. People do deserve to live and exist with dignity. It’s just a matter of figuring out a solution that fits for our community.”

After that meeting and a retreat with the Community Partnership of the Ozarks to discuss the homeless issue, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams announced the changes in protocol for his department where repeat offenders will face more serious consequences in the categories of trespassing, property damage, stealing and the pedestrian safety ordinance.

Williams was quick to point out that the new emphasis is not just aimed at homeless people.

“Being homeless is not a crime,” he said. “But there are some homeless people and a lot of other people who commit criminal acts that people associate with someone who might appear to be homeless. So it’s not criminalizing the homeless. It’s taking action on those criminal acts regardless of who they are.”

The increased enforcement is taking place now not only because of the concerns raised at the council meeting but because police have the tools available to carry out their duties like the upcoming opening of the new jail that will provide more space.

“It was an issue of us not being able to utilize all aspects of the criminal justice system,” Williams said. “In the last year we were able to get access to the jail again for municipal offenders and back in November COVID disrupted court proceedings. Repeat offenders knew that and it got worse. So we’re trying to reset to the way the system is supposed to work.”

To most of us who travel around town the most visible law being broken is the pedestrian safety ordinance which says people can’t be on the medians or approaching cars on the roadway for solicitation...basically banning panhandling in traffic. And it’s also illegal for people in cars to be engaging with the panhandler on the roadway.

“The person in the car and the person on the median are both subject to the same citation or arrest,” Williams said. “People can panhandle in a parking lot or sidewalk but they can’t be standing in a roadway or creating a traffic hazard. Having someone step out into traffic to give them money is not a safe thing for either person. I encourage those folks (in the cars) to volunteer or donate to an organization that helps those people who really want the help. You’re not really doing anything to help that person get out of the condition that they’re in and what we’ve found is that there are a lot of those folks who are opportunists and are doing it just to make the money. They don’t want the help or services.”

The other problems that have become hot topics are squatters and homeless camps.

“Somebody taking up residence in someone else’s house illegally is absolutely improper and immoral and shouldn’t happen,” Williams said. “We haven’t had the ability other than giving them a ticket up until now so removing them and putting them in a jail until they can see a judge to address that violation will hopefully send the message that they can’t do that. General trespassing involves dozens of letters of enforcement from residents and business owners around town who give police the authority to go remove them. The folks who are going to get arrested are the ones who do this five, ten, fifteen times who aren’t willing to do anything but continue that lifestyle.”

But in keeping with the belief that incarceration isn’t the only answer, the city is considering bringing back a Homeless Court that they previously had until the judge got another job.

“This specialty court would look at individuals who have those municipal warrants and connect them with a dedicated case worker that would help them with supportive services,” explained Michelle Garand, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks Vice-President for Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention.

“You’ve got your affairs in order, your driver’s license, an ID card, you’re looking for a job, we’re getting you into housing,” Williams said of the help the court provides. “Now we will move you out of this and get rid of all those charges that have been hanging over your head.”

The bottom line?

“Homelessness is not a crime and trying to survive on the street should not be criminalized,” Garand said. “That being said there are crimes occurring and neighborhoods are feeling the burden of not having a legal response to some of the crimes they’re witnessing. So he (Williams) is going to try and connect with as many services as possible before he puts people in jail.”

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