Missouri bill banning outside sleeping would criminalize homelessness, KC leaders say

·6 min read
Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com

Some Kansas City leaders working to address homelessness worry that a new bill could criminalize some unhoused people and cut funding from programs working to remedy it.

The bill, which passed both chambers of the Missouri legislature, now awaits a signature or veto by Gov. Mike Parson. It would ban individuals from sleeping on state-owned land and allow the state attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban. It would also require local governments to financially support services like mental health treatments and short-term housing.

If signed by Parson, the new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, could have unforeseen effects on the at least 2,000 unhoused individuals in Kansas City, some say.

Sarah Owsley, with Empower Missouri, which calls itself the oldest and largest anti-poverty nonprofit in the state, in testimony asked lawmakers to reconsider the language, concerned they didn’t fully understand the potential impact of it.

It’s obvious the legislation wasn’t written for or by Missourians, Owsley added. Rather, the language was based on a model by the Cicero Institute in Austin, where similar legislation was passed.

“I don’t think it’s perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Rep. Ingrid Burnett, a Kansas City Democrat, said of the bill, adding that the legislation isn’t a “one and done kind of deal.”

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Sleeping ban

Starting next year, after receiving a warning, unhoused individuals sleeping on state land could face a class C misdemeanor.

Rep. Peggy McGaugh, a Carrollton Republican, said she didn’t oppose the legislation when it was tacked onto her bill requiring local governments to publish salary information of elected officials.

Some lawmakers, she said, voiced concern about whether arresting those who are unhoused is inhumane.

In September, less than six months after Austin established its sleeping ban, city officials had issued more than 500 warnings and 130 citations. One arrest was made, but the individual entered a city diversion community court instead of being booked in jail, according to the Texas Tribune.

McGaugh pointed to this, saying that instead of facing jail time, those individuals were guided toward shelters.

But Kansas City’s shelters are often full, and many unhoused residents have complained of being turned away.

Owsley agrees with lawmakers that sleeping outside is an untenable circumstance, and is difficult not only for the houseless individuals, but others around them.

“But we have to really understand what are the systemic issues that lead to that condition before we just tell people ‘Move on, get out of a space that I can see you,’” she said.

While the legislation does require that an unhoused person sleeping outside is first issued a warning, Owsley said it’s unclear how the warning will be implemented. And, she added, issuing warnings hasn’t proven to be a deterrent to homelessness in other places.

Street sleeping bans also increase the likelihood that unsheltered individuals move deeper into the woods or to more secluded areas, that can present more dangerous situations for them, she said.

As Owsley sees it, in the best case scenario, criminalization will be deemed unconstitutional before it can be implemented. Her worst case scenario: unhoused people are penalized with fines and even criminal records, further affecting their ability to get jobs or housing in the future.

Burnett said that her impression after speaking with Rep. Bruce Degroot, who proposed an outdoor sleeping ban in the Missouri House, is that other lawmakers are open to improving the legislation. Degroot did not respond to a request for comment.

Threats of funding cuts

Marqueia Watson, executive director at the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said the legislation is at odds with much of the work being done on the ground in Kansas City where advocates and city leaders are working to find new creative solutions to house people, despite an alarming lack of affordable housing in the city.

For example, the bill would also penalize any local government with a per capita homelessness rate higher than the state average by prohibiting it from receiving state funding until they’ve lowered it.

Often, those experiencing homelessness come to Kansas City from both sides of the state line because Kansas City has more resources, she said; the city shouldn’t be punished financially for having the means to take more people in. And, as the pandemic has already proven, more and more people are facing homelessness as eviction moratorium expires and rental assistance dries up.

In addition to risking a lawsuit by the attorney general by failing to enforce the sleeping ban, local governments and agencies, already stretched thin, are at risk of losing financial support for not complying.

Watson said by requiring social workers to do anything remotely related to policing houseless individuals sleeping on state land will break trust and ultimately make it more difficult to get people help.

“There’s just so much about it that’s harmful,” Watson said.

Burnett said she has concerns with punishing local agencies for not enforcing statutes.

“If we’re going to do that, we need to have more input from people who are actually providing” these services, she said.

The bill also includes bonuses awarded by the Department of Economic Development for entities that reduce the number of days individuals spend unhoused, in jail or hospitalized.

This is problematic for Kansas City, Watson said, because that data is not accessible to organizations like hers.

“We’re being asked to remedy problems that exist outside of our sphere of influence, and then potentially be penalized for not affecting change in systems that we have zero access to,” she said.

While the final bill language was less harmful than previous iterations, Watson said it’s not going to fix decades of structural oppression that drives homelessness.

“Slapping things together to try to resolve what really is a much more complicated social problem is unwise,” she said.

While overlooked in the legislation, there needs to be a deep investment in affordable housing, she said. Instead, lawmakers are further burdening an already strapped system.

Josh Henges, Kansas City’s first homelessness prevention coordinator, said he understands the state’s desire to solve the problem of encampments. But he wants to work towards permanent solutions rather than a Band-Aid fix.

“Missouri has an opportunity to lead the way in finding unique solutions to solving this problem using Midwest ethos, accountability and hard work. Let’s find a solution, and let’s do it together,” he said.

Parson has until the end of June to sign or veto the bill.

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