New Missouri law bans outside sleeping. KC leaders say it criminalizes homelessness

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

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday signed into law a bill that bans people from sleeping on state-owned land and allows the state attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, also requires local governments to financially support services like mental health treatments and short-term housing.

Some Kansas City leaders working to address homelessness have expressed concern that the law could criminalize some of the estimated 2,000 people living without housing in Kansas City and cut funding from programs working to remedy it.

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

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a Kansas City police spokesman, said upon the bill’s signing, the department will talk with state and local partners and prosecutors “to ensure the best response in any possible situation for when the law takes effect.”

Rep. Bruce Degroot, a Chesterfield Republican, added the language regarding homelessness as an amendment to a bill requiring local governments to publish salary information of elected officials. While it passed both chambers of the Missouri legislature in late May, some lawmakers voiced concern about whether arresting those who are unhoused is inhumane.

At a bill signing ceremony in Jefferson City on Wednesday, Degroot said the law relocates some homeless individuals “to locations where they can safely get the help they need.”

Sleeping ban

Sarah Owsley, with Empower Missouri, which calls itself the oldest and largest anti-poverty nonprofit in the state, said issuing warnings hasn’t proven to deter 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: homeless people are penalized with fines and even criminal records, further affecting their ability to get jobs or housing in the future.

The bill’s language was based on a model by the Cicero Institute, a public policy think tank in Austin, Texas, where similar legislation was passed, Owlsey said.

In September 2021, 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.

Rep. Peggy McGaugh, a Carrollton Republican, previously 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.

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Threats of funding cuts

Marqueia Watson, executive director at the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said in May that 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.

One point of concern: the bill would penalize local governments with a per capita homelessness rate higher than the state average by prohibiting them 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 of the city’s concentration of resources, Watson 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 homeless people 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.

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 overlooked in the legislation, there needs to be a deep investment in affordable housing, she said.

Instead, Watson said, lawmakers are further burdening an already strapped system.

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