New Missouri law to incriminate the unhoused sparks controversy and confusion

Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:54 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - Across the region, homelessness is a hot topic and a big issue. There simply aren’t enough beds to provide shelter for the unhoused, but soon, a new Missouri law could criminalize those on the streets.

“I deal with the homeless and the opioid epidemic every day,” Eric Harris said.

The St. Louis native is a community activist and has been engaging the unhoused for years. Before that, he said he lived a very different life.

“[I] was in the streets, you know, misbehaving, in and out of jail, went to prison in 2014,” Harris said.

When Harris was released, he found comfort in the St. Patrick’s Center which helped him with job opportunities, utility and rental assistance. Their services stretch even further into the streets and now, Harris said a new Missouri law could hurt the unhoused.

“They will migrate, you know, to worser conditions than what they’re already in,” Harris explained.

House Bill 1606, signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson last week, makes it illegal for the unhoused to sleep or camp on state-owned land. In St. Louis, that’s primarily underneath interstate overpasses.

“What’s more inhumane is leaving them on the streets,” State Rep. Bruce DeGroot said.

West County Rep. DeGroot is one of the bill’s sponsors and said police won’t be putting the unhoused in jail.

“The bill states that an alternative to living on the streets has to be offered or that citation cannot be issued. So, the police officer has to have a place for these people to go,” DeGroot explained.

Local advocacy groups told News 4 they don’t have enough beds for the unhoused at the moment. News 4 asked if the bill is full of empty legislation if police officers can’t enforce it. DeGroot said he believes it will be enforced.

The bill states federal funding will be re-appropriated for cities to use for temporary housing. It’s unclear when that money will appear or how it’ll be distributed.

“If we don’t have places for these people to go, then it won’t work,” DeGroot added.

Others fear this will just lead to more violence and harm to the unhoused.

“It’s gonna push these people to go in and migrate into these vacant buildings that are vacant all over north St. Louis, and that’s gonna be a hazard,” Harris said.

According to DeGroot, the law goes into effect on August 28. However, House Bill 1606′s language states it doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023. St. Louis City and County both told News 4 the new bill will not affect their current protocols to help the unhoused.