A New Approach to Homelessness
Six thousand, five hundred. That’s how many people are homeless in Missouri on any given day, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In truth, the number is probably a lot higher. If you’ve traveled to any major city you’ve seen homeless people sleeping out in the open along sidewalks and beneath highway overpasses. The problem isn’t limited to cities, however. In smaller communities, and even rural areas, we see families sleeping in cars and huddled together in squalid encampments on the edges of towns. Clearly what we’re doing to address homelessness is not working.
This week, I traveled back to the State Capitol to be on hand as the governor signed House Bill 1606 into law. This package of legislation relating to political subdivisions includes a provision I sponsored to attack homelessness from a different angle. My legislation, originally introduced as Senate Bill 1106, focuses on the root causes of homelessness, rather than the nation’s current “housing first” model that puts the focus on long-term housing.
Those root causes are mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse. A 2019 study by UCLA’s California Policy Lab found more than 75% of chronically homeless people have either a serious mental illness or a substance abuse problem. More than half of the long-term homeless have both. National efforts to help the homeless only focus on giving people a place to live – in some cases, a permanent home, paid for by taxpayers – but don’t deal with the underlying problems of mental health and substance abuse.
My legislation, which mirrors House Bill 2614, was inspired by innovative programs to address homelessness that are proving successful in Texas and elsewhere. Instead of building permanent housing for homeless individuals, the legislation envisions designated camping areas or tiny home villages where drug treatment and mental health services are available on site. Funded by state homelessness grants and operated by nonprofit organizations or public entities, these would be safe, supervised areas away from city centers, where homeless individuals would have access to running water, sanitary facilities and public safety. As someone who experienced homelessness during my own childhood, I understand what a blessing these simple amenities would be to a family accustomed to living on the streets.
Our legislation requires increased accountability from those working to address homelessness. To continue receiving public funds, providers (including traditional congregate shelters) will have to show results. Those who can show success, with individuals finding employment and stable housing, will qualify for bonus funding. This “pay-for-performance” funding structure allows the state to invest in what is working and move away from what is not.
Predictably, our legislation has been met with some resistance, as change is hard. But as stewards of our tax dollars who care passionately about the mental health breakdown our country is experiencing, shouldn’t we focus on the root cause and look for ways to get folks back to healthy lives? I hope, in time, we will see better outcomes as we successfully address the issues that cause Missourians to become homeless in the first place.
I always appreciate hearing your comments, opinions and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Thompson Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, send an email to Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or visit www.senate.mo.gov/Rehder.