Nate Schlueter, the Gathering Tree's chief visionary officer, stands in front of a tiny home at Eden Village. The Gathering Tree, the nonprofit that operates Eden Village, filed a lawsuit to challenge the new law that criminalizes unauthorized camping on state-owned land. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the date when HB 1606 went into effect, which was January of 2022.

The Gathering Tree’s lawsuit challenging a relatively new state law that criminalizes camping on state lands will be heard Wednesday by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Gathering Tree is a Springfield-based nonprofit best known for creating Eden Village I and II, tiny home communities for disabled and chronically homeless people. 

The Gathering Tree filed the lawsuit last August against the State of Missouri and Eric S. Schmitt (in his official capacity as Missouri Attorney General) alleging that House Bill 1606, as it relates to homelessness and the organization, is in direct violation of the Missouri State Constitution.

According to the Gathering Tree/Eden Village petition, House Bill 1606 violates Article 3 of the state’s constitution “in that it violates the single subject and clear title requirements on its face” and “the final version of the bill changed its original purpose.”

Nate Schlueter, the Gathering Tree’s Chief Visionary Officer, said he is excited the state’s highest court will be hearing the case. 

“It’s been a whole process with multiple organizations writing  letters of support,” he said. “We’re excited to at least get our  opinion heard and hope that they recognize what we recognize which is a clear violation of the Missouri Constitution on how bills are supposed to be arranged and how things aren’t supposed to be snuck in last minute like that.”

This is a tent structure a homeless person built. It is at least 20 feet long.
This structure was at a homeless camp in Springfield earlier this year. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

“Missouri is supposed to be a one-subject bill,” he continued. “And this (HB 1606) was more about county financial records and things like that. And then all of a sudden, it addressed homelessness, which in our opinion has nothing  to do with the other parts of the bill.”

HB 1606, which went into effect in January of 2022, reads in part: “No person shall be permitted to use state-owned lands for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelter. Any violation shall be a Class C misdemeanor; however, the first offense shall be a warning with no citation.”

By all accounts, that language was slipped into the legislation at the last minute with many lawmakers having no idea it was in there.

“The way that was brought up, we think, was wrong and potentially harmful, from our standpoint, for the clients that we serve,” Schlueter said. “Not only do we not agree with that section of the bill, but that’s not the way that bills are supposed to be processed. 

“That text was put in at a different time than the rest of it,” he said. “And the lawmakers that we’ve heard from say that they didn’t even get time to read through the new additions to the bill.”

The law goes on to say that the Attorney General has “the power to bring a civil action to enjoin the political subdivision from failing to enforce any ordinances prohibiting public camping, sleeping, or obstruction of sidewalks.”

In addition to making it a misdemeanor crime to sleep or camp on state-owned property, the bill says that political subdivisions, primarily municipalities, must maintain a per-capita homelessness rate at or below the state average or enforce ordinances that comply with the law, or could face a loss in state funding or civil action by the Attorney General.

About the lawsuit

The Missouri Supreme Court provided the following information: 

In June of 2022, the governor signed House Bill No. 1606. As originally introduced, the bill was titled an act relating to “county financial statements” and repealed four statutory sections and enacted two new sections. The bill sought to reduce the amount of financial information certain counties were required to publish. 

When enacted, HB 1606 was titled an act relating to “political subdivisions” and repealed 42 sections and enacted 50 new statutory sections. HB 1606 included section 67.2300, RSMo, which contains provisions regarding the use of state funds for parking areas, camping facilities, and shelters for homeless individuals.

Johnathan Byrd, Jessica Honeycutt, and Allison Miles (collectively, “the challengers”) sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the state, alleging HB 1606 violates the single subject, clear title, and original purpose requirements of the state constitution in light of section 67.2300’s inclusion in the bill. 

The circuit court later consolidated the case with another filed by The Gathering Place d/b/a Eden Village, which similarly alleged HB 1606 is constitutionally invalid. The parties then filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. The circuit court sustained the state’s motion, concluding HB 1606 is constitutionally valid. The challengers appeal.

This appeal presents several questions for this Court. The first is whether HB 1606 violates the single subject requirement of the Missouri Constitution. Related issues include whether section 67.2300 fairly relates to political subdivisions; what effect, if any, the fact that section 67.2300 applies to entities beyond political subdivisions has on the single subject requirement; and whether section 67.2300 imposes any oversight requirements on political subdivisions. 

A second question involves whether HB 1606 violates the state constitution’s clear titled requirement. Related issues include whether the title is underinclusive. 

A final question involves whether HB 1606 violates the Missouri Constitution’s original purpose requirement. Related issues include what the original purpose of HB 1606 was; whether section 67.2300 is logically connected or germane to HB 1606’s original purpose, particularly if the bill’s original purpose was county financial statements; and, if the bill’s original purpose was to regulate political subdivisions, whether section 67.2300 is germane to that purpose. 

The Missouri Budget Project, the National Homelessness Law Center, the ArchCity Defenders, Inc., Greater Kansas City Coalition to Homelessness, Empower Missouri, National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Coalition for the Homeless, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness filed briefs as friends of the Court in support of the challengers.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald