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Missouri’s New Bill Is About to Make Life Miserable for the Homeless

Missouri’s New Bill Is About to Make Life Miserable for the Homeless

Missouri Governor Mike Parson is taking heat for making it a felony to sleep on publicly owned land. The law, which will go into effect next year, effectively targets the homeless population and will make an already difficult life more difficult for the state’s roughly 6,500 homeless. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch found a letter in which Parson’s own cabinet member, Missouri Department of Mental Health Director Valerie Huhn, criticized the law — saying it will likely make life more difficult for homeless people and exacerbate problems instead of fixing them. But Parson signed it anyway.

Here’s how it works. Anyone caught sleeping on public grounds, such as under a bridge or an overpass, gets one warning. After that, you’re charged with a $750 fine or a Class C misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 15 days in prison.

That’s not all. The state attorney general can sue cities that don’t enforce the law, and penalizes cities with homeless rates higher than the national average by cutting them off from state funding for homeless services. Basically, the state is choosing to treat homeless people like a disease to be squashed, and the failure to do so will only result in losing whatever limited resources you may have had for helping them in the first place.

Sound a little cruel? Don’t worry, it gets worse! The bill will bar cities and local organizations from building permanent housing for the homeless with state or federal grants. Instead, that money has to be used for temporary camps that are offered to homeless people on a conditional basis, such as mental health and substance abuse evaluations. They run contrary to the current federal “housing first” model, which starts by providing unsheltered people with a home and then focuses on mental health or addiction issues.

Many of the problems with this bill should be self-evident, but Huhn, who has a long history in state social services, pointed out a few less obvious ones in her letter. For example, “[p]rivate landlords statewide may choose not to lease to persons experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons, such as no rental history, no credit or poor credit, or criminal justice histories,” she wrote. “Stable housing is a key component of successful recovery.” So a homeless person gets slapped with a Class C misdemeanor for being homeless, then attempts to apply for an actual apartment in order to stop being homeless but, lo and behold, is turned away because they were convicted for being homeless.

Of course, landlords aren’t the only ones who might see a felony conviction as a good reason not to work with a homeless person attempting to find some financial stability in their life. Potential employers are also likely to take a past conviction into consideration, meaning any unhoused person seeking employment could very easily find themselves in an inhumane and unfeeling cycle. One thing the law does do is have the value of making the politicians who sign it look like they’re being “tough” on crime. Whether or not Jesus — who said when we feed and clothe and shelter the homeless, we are really feeding, clothing and sheltering him — is excited about this new law is not a question anyone has yet asked Governor Parson, as far as we can tell.

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