Springfield City Council study session on new Missouri homeless laws leaves plenty of questions

Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 7:03 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The recently-passed Missouri legislation related to the homeless is set to become law in the coming year. On Tuesday, the Springfield City Council looked at House Bill 1606 to understand its effect on local efforts.

Several representatives from organizations that deal with the homeless were also on hand.

And the initial reviews were tepid.

“The city of Springfield is really taking a very proactive approach to this,” said Michelle Garand, the Deputy Director of Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention for the Community Partnership of the Ozarks. “They’re trying to figure out what they can do to make sure lives are not negatively impacted by this very vague and ambiguous law that we have.”

“We don’t believe the bill is written in a very high-quality way,” added Springfield City Manager Jason Gage. “Sometimes that happens in the rush of the legislature at the end of a session, but it does make it difficult for communities to interpret and enforce.”

The bill has several parts to it, with the most well-known statute prohibiting the homeless from camping out on state-owned land.

Springfield City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader presented the bill’s details to the council and, while not giving her own opinion, did point out some of the ambiguities of the new law.

“Is somebody who stays in their car constitute camping? It doesn’t define that particular term,” she replied to a question from the council. “So it’s hard to say.”

“We’ll have to figure out what our role is when we have potential housing encampments on state property,” Gage said. “We’ll have to look and see if it changes how we respond, but I don’t really think it will too much. Our emphasis is first-and-foremost trying to marry the individuals with needs to the agencies that can help them, and I don’t see that changing. We know some individuals have behavioral and substance abuse problems, but we want to help those who are ready and want to get into treatment. There still needs to be consequences for those who choose not to do that and perhaps create a negative impact in our communities and neighborhoods.”

“The statute also redirects state funding to short-term housing for the homeless as well as specific programs,” Lewsader pointed out to the council. “So the focus of the bill is definitely to move from providing permanent housing solutions to providing short-term housing.”

And the law limits state funding to certain types of short-term housing:

-- parking areas that provide water, electrical outlets, and bathrooms

-- camping facilities that provide storage of personal property and mental health and substance abuse evaluation as determined by the state and local agency

-- individual shelters that house 1-3 individuals for not more than two years

--congregate shelter housing (more than four individuals) if such a facility monitors and provides programs to improve employment, income, and prevention of a return to homelessness

That means no state funding for long-term, permanent housing, an essential part of Springfield’s attempt to address the homeless population. Several organizations, like Eden Village, Habitat for Humanity, and The Kitchen, have successfully provided permanent affordable housing.

“The state is going under the presumption that you have some short-term housing, throw in some services, someone goes through the program, and all of a sudden they’re fine and don’t need support anymore,” Gage explained. “But the problem is it’s not that easy. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t see a growth in unsheltered persons across the whole country.”

“This bill is contrary to everything that we’ve been working on over the last two decades,” Garand added. “Permanent housing is where you find the solutions and where you’re able to reduce the number of homeless. We’re seeing people obtain and maintain permanent housing because we’ve created a system that works. And that system is the exact opposite of this law. There’s nothing about this bill that supports anything we’re doing locally to address homelessness, and I will also say it’s not doing anything to support initiatives across the state. So even if there’s a problem area in Missouri, this is not a solution. Streamlining access to permanent housing, increasing the amount of affordable housing, increasing subsidies, and stabilizing services like mental health care, education, employment, and legal services is where you’ll find the solutions. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Two lawsuits have already been filed against House Bill 1606, including one by The Gathering Tree, the organization that runs Eden Village.

And between the homeless camping ordinance and state-funding redirection, there’s a lot of confusion and frustration.

“It directly affects the homeless by criminalizing the homeless,” said Benjamin Stringer, the attorney for The Gathering Tree, alluding to the ordinance about not sleeping on state-owned land. “And it also gives authority to the Attorney General to basically sue political municipalities or cities if they’re not enforcing their local ordinances to the liking of the Attorney General.”

“That is a little odd to see a state law with a requirement to enforce laws that a city government has already passed,” Gage agreed. “It’s not something we’re too concerned about, but it certainly is an oddity.”

So what is the biggest concern about House Bill 1606?

“I think that would be how much is it going to affect the state and even possibly federal funds to our local providers that are out there every day trying to help people,” Gage answered.

“The concern is at level nine-and-a-half out of 10,” Garand said of the state-funding changes. “Because even the Governor’s office cannot tell us what funding is going to be impacted. When we look at every possible funding stream that this could impact, it’s big!”

To report a correction or typo, please email digitalnews@ky3.com