An unsheltered man and his dog sit on a grassy area next to Chestnut Expressway in January 2023. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Missouri’s new law banning unauthorized camping or sleeping on state-owned property went into effect less than a month ago, but at least one local lawmaker wants to have it repealed.

Springfield representative and House Minority Leader Crystal Quade filed a bill in early January to repeal the section of the law that makes it illegal to sleep or camp on state-owned property.

The law was signed by Gov. Mike Parson last summer. It 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.”

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 law 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. If they don’t, they could face a loss in state funding or civil action by the attorney general.

While there’s been a lot of confusion about what all that will actually look like, Springfield would be among the communities likely to lose funding. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Missouri’s per capita rate of homelessness in 2021 was .000834. The rate of homelessness for the Springfield/Greene, Christian and Webster County Continuum of Care was .00134 — well above the state’s.

Quade’s take

Rep. Crystal Quade, pictured while attending the Springfield Public Schools Task Force meeting in July 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Quade said she doesn’t necessarily think her repeal is going to pass with full support from both sides of the House, but it does create an opportunity for discussion about the potential problems with the law and unintended consequences.

According to Quade, several lawmakers didn’t realize the language about homelessness had been added to the bill when they voted for it last year.

“This was added on to a giant omnibus bill right at the end of the session, and a lot of folks didn’t know,” she said, “because the underlying bill we were all supportive of. And then there were several amendments added at the very last, I think it may have been the last week of session.”

But then after the bill was passed and people learned what all was in it, Quade said she and other lawmakers began hearing from nonprofits that the bill potentially puts a lot of funding for homeless services in jeopardy. 

“This part of the bill was not vetted and didn’t get a public hearing,” Quade said. “It was one of those things that happens, when we do these giant omnibus bills, where there’s pieces that get knocked down that we don’t totally understand the consequences of.”

Quade said she is working with both Republicans and Democrats who have been contacted by their constituents — specifically advocates and nonprofits that serve the unsheltered communities who are worried about the impact of the new law.

“I think there is some room for folks on the other side who are wanting to potentially repeal or replace with some new language that can fix some of the problems,” she said.

Two lawsuits to challenge new law have joined

Nate Schlueter, the chief visionary officer of Eden Village, speaks with Reporter Jackie Rehwald. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

In addition to Quade’s move to have the law repealed, two lawsuits filed last year to challenge the new law were recently joined. The first lawsuit was filed by Springfield-based nonprofit The Gathering Tree.

The Gathering Tree operates Eden Villages I and II, tiny home communities that provide affordable housing and wrap-around services for disabled, chronically homeless people. The Gathering Tree’s lawsuit argued the new law violates the Missouri Constitution.

The suit said House Bill 1606 (the legislation that created the new law) violated 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.”

The second lawsuit filed in September by three plaintiffs, including two Greene County residents, argued essentially the same thing — that the bill had extra language crammed in that was unrelated to the original intention.

Nate Schlueter with The Gathering Tree said they’ve yet to get a response from the attorney general’s office. And in addition to violating the state’s constitution, Schlueter said the new law is wrong on a “basic moral and human level.”

“Additional criminalization of people in absolute poverty is wrong,” he said. “But more specifically, this law says if you are at the lowest level of poverty in America, you either must go to designated camps that the state will fund and get mental health and addiction services, or you will be criminalized. And I think that is dangerous and it takes us back to things like internment camps that we deeply regret as a society.”

Schlueter was also critical of the law because some worry it will redirect funding from permanent supportive housing programs such as Eden Village to temporary shelter programs and make-shift campgrounds on parking lots.

“There is no success if you stay at that camp they want these municipalities to build,” he said. “You are still very much homeless and without a community. And it also says those sort of living conditions are acceptable. To stay somewhere long term without bathrooms and without your own kitchen and things like that, I just don’t think that is a successful model we should be pouring resources in.”

Police chief plans to continue giving 24 hours notice

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams
Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams during a 2022 interview. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

The city of Springfield’s homeless camp protocol, which was established in 2014, directs Springfield police officers to give campers a minimum of 24 hours to leave the property. Officers then work with advocates and property owners to sometimes extend that time up to 72 hours.

According to the protocol, officers are to also contact staff at One Door, this community’s central point of entry for coordinated intake of shelterless people for assessment and referrals for housing and shelter services. One Door then sends staff and/or volunteers to the camp to offer services and help with moving.

In an earlier interview, Chief Paul Williams told the Daily Citizen he viewed the new law as a “positive” in that it will allow officers to remove campers from state-owned property, which is usually next to highways and dangerous areas for camping.

Williams said he plans to continue to follow the city’s protocol when it comes to encampments.

“Our homeless protocol works very well,” Williams said in that interview. “We work to give people time and connect them with services and let those who want help get help.

“Being homeless is not a crime,” Williams said. “There are things that those who are homeless do — they commit crimes or there are people that prey on the homeless. I think they’re victims as much as they are suspects.”

Adam Bodendieck is the director of homeless services at Community Partnership of the Ozarks. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Adam Bodendieck is the director of homeless services for One Door and Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

Asked if One Door has been contacted by law enforcement regarding homeless camps more than usual since the new law went into effect on Jan. 1, Bodendieck said not really.

“I also checked with some of our outreach team through Burrell (Behavioral Health) and our welcome desk staff here at the (O’Reilly Center for Hope) just to make sure,” he said. “Where Springfield Police Department is concerned, nobody has seen any kind of notable change in interaction. It doesn’t appear that anything different is happening.”

Bodendieck called the new law a “misguided approach.”

“Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to address its root causes,” he said. “I think in some cases you’ve got supporters of legislation like this where I think their hearts might be in the right place — they are wanting to accomplish good things for good reasons. But the way they are doing it is not the best way.”

Sheriff closes camps, arrests trespassers

A recent social media post from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office has some advocates and service providers concerned that unsheltered people are being arrested and jailed more frequently and are not being offered any type of services.

The post was made on Jan. 12 and describes how Sheriff Jim Arnott and deputies responded “to several privately owned properties that were inundated with trespassers who had set up illegal encampments.”

Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott at the Greene County Jail Dedication. (Photo by Shanon Cay)

Arnott told the commissioners at a briefing that morning that he had led a “small operation” on three private properties and arrested 11 people. It is not clear the location of any of these encampments.

As sheriff, Arnott has jurisdiction in and out of city limits, and his deputies do not have to follow the city’s protocol of giving people at least 24 hours to vacate.

At least one of the properties in Arnott’s “small operation” is state-owned. Arnott told the commissioners at the briefing, “We had one on a MoDOT right-of-way also that we made an arrest on.”

During that briefing, Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon thanked Arnott for his efforts.

“It may not be popular with some people in the community, but it’s what I call tough love,” Dixon said. “It’s difficult to do, but it’s the right thing to do for those property owners.”

The Daily Citizen made multiple attempts to talk to Arnott about whether he would be willing to enact a protocol similar to the city’s that would give service providers a chance to go to the camps and help people move and offer services. 

The Daily Citizen filed a formal Sunshine Request on Jan. 13, asking for the locations of the homeless camps, information about who was arrested and if they have been charged with a crime, as well as the complaints from the property owners. The sheriff’s office has not yet fulfilled the request. 

In that Jan. 12 social media post, Arnott expressed his thoughts on trespassing:

 “The frustrated owners of these properties worked with the Sheriff’s Office, requesting the removal of the trespassers who had created these illegal encampments…

“It is my responsibility to enforce the laws of this state and protect the rights of these land owners.  Springfield is a great community that provides many resources and shelters to those in need. The Sheriff’s Office is committed to enforcing the laws and connecting those in need with these resources.”

What good is the protocol?

This is a notice and order to vacate attached to a shopping cart filled with clothes. The shopping cart is sitting at the edge of the woods where homeless people were camping.
This ‘notice and order to vacate’ was attached to a shopping cart filled with clothes on Aug. 31, 2022. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

Bodendieck, with One Door, called the city’s protocol agreement with the Springfield Police Department “an opportunity to engage.”

“By having the protocol in place, we get to interact with folks beforehand. We get to give them a heads-up,” he said. “We let them know, ‘Hey, this is coming. You’ve got clear expectations and deadlines on the timing.’

“We connect with different advocates and groups to assist with relocation, storage, whatever the case may be,” Bodendieck continued. “We get to provide shelter resources. We get to make sure they are up on the prioritization list (for housing programs).

“It offers a lot of benefits,” he said, “not the least of which is you are not having these negative interactions and creating potential for negative relationships. Obviously, we don’t want that between our folks and law enforcement. A lot of our officers have expressed the desire, and they’ve proven it with their actions, to get folks connected to resources, help them find a better path.”

Schlueter, with Eden Village and the Gathering Tree, said he understands that property owners have rights and that it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to protect those rights. But when it comes to unsheltered people camping on undeveloped, vacant properties because they have nowhere else to go, he believes it’s important to put trespassers on notice and get service providers involved to offer help.

And when all that happens, the cost then falls on the nonprofits, Schlueter said. But when folks are incarcerated instead, taxpayers foot the bill.

“If someone was set up in my backyard, I would have an issue. I would want them out of my backyard immediately because I’m living in the home,” Schlueter said. “The squatting on vacant land — we have enough great nonprofits and a great Continuum of Care that it could become an opportunity for a permanent, life-changed end of homelessness if the organizations had a moment, just a moment to organize and come in and give people the help they need.”

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald