Advocates speak out against new Missouri homelessness law

Midwest

(NewsNation) — Sleeping on state-owned land is now a misdemeanor in Missouri after a law went into effect Jan. 1. Critics of the legislation say it stigmatizes and harms the homeless.

KCUR, NPR’s member station in Kansas City, reports that “sleeping, camping, or having long-term shelter on state-owned land” is illegal. Cities and counties are required to enforce the ban, according to KCUR, and the attorney general can act against municipalities that don’t.

Unhoused persons who don’t comply could face a $750 fine or 15 days in jail for sleeping under highways or in public parks.

Proponents of the law, according to the Missouri Independent, say the provisions would reduce the number of encampments in their communities, which they believe are dangerous. But those who oppose it say it could lead to harassment of unhoused people, especially by law enforcement.

People in Missouri who work with unhoused people have said that many of them don’t have anywhere to go.

Sarah Owsley, director of policy and advocacy for Empower Missouri, which advocates on behalf of low-income residents, said in the Missouri Independent that there is “nowhere in Missouri that has adequate shelter beds to meet the needs for people who are currently outdoors.” Many areas, she said, have no available beds at all.

Speaking on “Morning in America” Wednesday, Kathy Connors, executive director of Gateway 180 Homeless Services, said currently, in the city of St. Louis alone, there are 2,500 households experiencing homelessness.

“(The law) actually stigmatizes individuals. It creates a label for individuals who are experiencing homelessness,” Connors explained. “You now have a new misdemeanor, a record if you will, which is going to create difficulties for individuals to receive gainful employment, as well as to move forward with housing in regards to passing the background checks.”

Connors said it’s hard not to think that this is an “optics move.”

“Only housing is going to end homelessness,” she said. “To provide the type of housing that provides the appropriate supports is what will actually maintain housing stability for many, and not only maintain housing stability, but also assist individuals in providing the resources that will help them move forward, advance and graduate, if you will, from the need of permanent supportive housing.

KCUR writes that there are already attempts to stop the law’s implementation, with multiple lawsuits being filed against the measure. One, filed in September, is being handled by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

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