Camping ban in Missouri depresses rural homeless population
BOLIVAR, MO – The pastor of First Christian Church was startled one morning when what he thought was a pile of donated clothes on the doorstep of his church was actually Titus Finn, who had curled up and spent the night there.
Mr Finn, 26, said he’s slept in practically “any place I can put my head” in the city of 11,000 – he’s lived in and out of homelessness since childhood.
There are few other options: Bolivar offers no homeless shelter, no mental hospital, and no regular public transportation to get to Springfield, the closest city with resources. Even when Mr. Finn got there, shelter beds are limited, supporters say, and camping is now not allowed there.
Missouri has banned camping on state-owned land since Jan. 1, part of a national push to limit visible homelessness that has spread to a variety of cities, including Portland and Los Angeles.
Advocates of homeless people say the policy amounts to criminalizing homelessness and leaving homeless people in communities that do not have emergency shelters or designated campgrounds. But proponents of the policy associate street camping with trash or increased rates of violence, and want to introduce those who are vulnerable to treatment programs for behavioral health or addiction problems.
Republican Missouri Senator Holly Thompson Rehder, who proposed the measure and said she experienced homelessness as a child, said it was inhumane to let someone sleep on the street.
“The purpose of this bill is to link short-term housing with mental health services,” she said. “The first step is to get someone off the street and into an emergency shelter.”
The camping bans come because of factors like inflation and rent increases threaten to push more people into homelessness, according to the bipartisan US Government Accountability Office.
Street homelessness has been on the rise in Missouri, according to federal data collected on a night each year and widely considered underestimated. Of the 5,883 homeless people counted in 2018, 1,214 were homeless. In 2022, 1,601 out of 5,992 unaccommodated people were not living in emergency shelter, safe haven or transitional shelter.
The number of beds available in emergency shelters in Missouri has not kept pace. According to federal data analyzed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2022 there were 3,074 beds for 4,416 single adults.
The rise in visible homelessness is putting political pressure on local and state leaders, said Allianz chief executive officer Ann Oliva. “It gets mixed up with substance abuse, crime, mental illness, all the things that aren’t necessarily always related,” she said.
A growing number of cities have banned camping on public land, but statewide bans are relatively new. They were largely inspired by the Cicero Institute, a conservative Austin think tank founded by Joe Lonsdale, who also co-founded the data analytics company Palantir Technologies.
The approach aims to get people to seek services, said Bryan Sunderland, Cicero’s advocacy director. “If you need a camping ban to move them to the services they need or to put them in a better situation that’s better for the community as a whole, then that’s the approach you should take,” he said.
Missouri is the second state after Texas to adopt the institute’s model legislation. The measure makes it an offense to sleep on state land and penalizes cities that don’t enforce the camping ban. It also shifts state and some federal funds away from permanent housing to temporary housing.
Lawsuits have been filed to challenge the ban on Missouri, whose language was added to an independent bill near the end of the 2022 legislative session.
The Tennessee legislature separately made some public campgrounds a felony.
Nestled among acres of grassy fields in rural Southwest Missouri, Bolivar is the center of one of the nation’s top beef producing counties. The city recently faced a housing shortage as a meatpacking plant and manufacturing facility also brought more jobs to the area.
Travis DeWitt, a case manager at Community Outreach Ministries, a religious nonprofit in Bolivar, said he’s worked with people who “literally live in tents in the woods and work at major agencies or major companies here in town.”
A woman stayed for a while in a white wooden shack meant to be a bus stop in the nonprofit’s parking lot. Others crash with friends or camp out in a weed-filled manhole or trash-strewn house. Mr Finn is among several who have camped on state-owned land, said Judi Woods, a local advocate for the homeless.
“I have no place for her. I don’t have transportation to get them where they need to go,” Mr. DeWitt said. “What do I say to someone like that?”
Police officers and attorneys in Bolivar are trying to direct homeless people to Springfield, about 30 miles south, where there is a network of shelters and non-profit organizations. But these groups say they don’t have enough space, especially as the dissolution of the camps drives more people into shelters. The City of Springfield has no intention of opening a designated campground for the homeless.
“We’re not encouraging that,” Springfield City Manager Jason Gage said, citing concerns about exposure to cold and hot weather.
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott, whose territory includes Springfield but not Bolivar, has arrested several people since January for trespassing on private property and at least one man for camping on state land, typically rights of way or space under bridges. He said local residents have complained to him about intruders leaving trash behind.
“A lot of these people talking about displaced people, you know where do you live?” he said. “If you have a house with a front and back yard, by all means let them stay there.”
Ms Thompson Rehder said the law has a caveat: no one can be subpoenaed unless they are offered housing and decline it. That would except for a place like Bolivar where there is no 24-hour shelter. She said the law has not brought about any changes in the rural areas of her district.
An estimated 84 out of 114 Missouri counties have no shelters for the homeless or people fleeing domestic violence. According to federal data, in 2022, about 40% of vulnerable homeless people spent a night in suburban or rural areas.
Bolivar Police Chief Mark Webb, a community police advocate, said he would encourage anyone who is camping to get moving and try to direct them to help.
Despite the spin-off, opponents say the law’s language is unclear and runs counter to a “housing first” approach that prioritizes long-term housing over addressing behavioral health needs and other issues.
One evening in January, Gloria Shelburn, 46, was waiting to be taken to a cold-weather shelter after a volunteer reminded her that camping on state land was now punishable by a fine and jail time.
“How do you know the difference?” asked Ms. Shelburn, a former registered nursing assistant who has lived in wooded areas of Springfield and a home with no utilities. “It’s not like it was posted.”
Additional shelters in Springfield and Bolivar open at night when temperatures remain below freezing. A Springfield campground with trailers and small units offers free shelter even on those cold-weather nights, although the facilities aren’t heated.
Bill Nichols, the pastor who found Mr. Finn outside, said he wasn’t sure any church had found a solution to the homelessness.
“We can identify some of the problems,” he said, “but we haven’t found any good solutions.”
Authors: Shannon Najmabadi at firstname.lastname@example.org
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