Missouri HB 1606—Explaining The State’s Homelessness Reform
There has been an immense amount of misinformation in the press about Missouri’s homelessness reform bill, HB 1606, with some articles falsely claiming it makes street sleeping a felony and others claiming that it withdraws funding from any city with above-average homelessness. In fact, the bill makes necessary but limited reforms to a few state programs and laws and will help reduce the scourge of street homelessness in Missouri.
First, the bill offers new opportunities for state funding of homeless programs. Currently, there is no state law that authorizes spending for “safe parking areas,” which allow homeless people with cars to have secure places to park, “sanctioned camping facilities,” which allow the rapid construction of spaces for the homeless to camp with necessary services, and “tiny home villages,” containing small shelters of one-to-three individuals. This law, in Section 2, authorizes these programs. Any funding for these will be dependent on state appropriations or federal grants, but the law at least sets a baseline for how such programs can be created and the services they would be required to provide.
The law, again Section 2, also requires that when the state funds typical “congregate” shelters, or shelters for many individuals in one building, the shelters keep track of how they help their clients stay off the streets and improve their employment and income. Many shelters already do this, and this law will allow the state to assist them in this data gathering and ensure the shelters are getting the best outcomes. It also allows, but does not require, the state to create performance bonuses of up to 10% of a contract if a shelter can improve these outcomes.
The only provision of the act that restricts a type of spending is Section 4, which forbids the use of state funds for the construction of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. Since almost all federal funds are already devoted to this purpose, it makes no sense for Missouri to throw its limited state resources in the same direction. This law requires the state to use such funds that would otherwise go to supportive housing to instead be used for services, and then allows, but does not require, the state to create performance incentive funding of up to 25% of such service contracts if the contractors can show they can reduce the time on the street, in jail, and in hospitals of their clients. Since there is not a fixed bucket of “construction of permanent supportive housing for the homeless” funds in the state, the state will have some discretion in deciding how much funds will go to these types of services in lieu of housing overall. The state would also have discretion to use regular funds for the leasing of properties for supportive housing, as long as it was not for construction.
There has been some confusion that the law would cause the state to lose federal funds. Although the law, in section 1, does include federal funds going through the state for the above-stated purposes, it also explicitly states that the law does not affect federal funds that are subject to other “federal statutory or regulatory restrictions.” Therefore, if a federal contract or grant or rule requires using the funds for different purposes, this law would not apply.
Much of the misinformation about the law concerns the sections on sleeping or camping on public lands. First, the law, in section 5, does forbid sleeping, camping, or constructing shelters on state-owned lands, and makes violation of the law a Class C misdemeanor. But this only applies to “unauthorized” sleeping or camping, thus it would also allow the state to set up sanctioned camping areas for the homeless as described above. Most importantly, the law requires individuals to be given a warning before citation, and then requires them later to refuse either shelter or services before a citation, which means alternatives must be offered before any citation. This provision is in fact far less punitive than most existing city provisions in Missouri against camping or obstructing public sidewalks, which do not include referrals to services or even a warning as a requirement.
The law, in section 6, also makes it illegal for cities to “prohibit or discourage” the enforcement of existing laws against camping, sleeping, or obstructing sidewalks, and allows the Attorney General to sue the cities if they do so. This would require an affirmative decision of the local city to not enforce their laws, or to discourage their enforcement, and does not require some specific amount of enforcement. Currently, no city in the state is refusing to enforce their laws, and existing trends in the cities are to increase enforcement, and therefore it would not impact any cities right now.
Finally, the law in Section 7 takes away state homeless funding from any city that is refusing to abide by the Section 6 above on the enforcement of street camping laws. Again, this would require an affirmative action by the city to stop enforcement, and thus this provision currently does not threaten any city. The law also says the funding restriction would not apply to cities that have a per-capita rate of unsheltered homelessness below the state average. Some argued that this would mean any city with an above-average level of unsheltered homelessness would lose funds, but in fact this would require both an above-average level of homelessness and a refusal to enforce the law. Again, no city is currently refusing to enforce their own laws.
In sum, the law authorizes new types of homeless funding, creates new pay-for-performance programs, and strengthens existing laws against street camping or sleeping while offering alternatives to the homeless. It is a necessary reform that will help reduce the dangers of street homelessness for the communities and the homeless themselves.