If you’ve driven through Kansas City or St. Louis, more likely than not you have seen individuals sleeping on the sidewalk or experiencing episodes of extreme mental distress. For me and so many other Missouri residents, the explosive growth of the state’s homeless population and the visible suffering of the people on our streets are not issues that we can ignore. But there are compassionate and innovative solutions that can clean up our streets, get struggling Missourians the help they desperately need and make our communities safer.
I introduced Senate Bill 1106 to change how our state approaches homelessness because our current policies just aren’t working. Rather than continuing to focus state resources only on building housing units for homeless people, our bill directs funds to mental health interventions and innovative shelters and services that actually address the underlying issues that homeless individuals are experiencing.
Missouri has followed the national trend of prioritizing the expensive construction of free housing over targeted treatment for homeless people. Simply providing a place to stay may work for those who are temporarily homeless or have fallen on hard times, but it is not the right solution for the chronically homeless. A recent UCLA study found that more than 75% of chronically homeless people have a serious mental illness, 75% have a substance abuse problem and a majority have both.
Additional housing alone is not going to ease the suffering of our homeless neighbors, nor is allowing people to live on the streets or in park playgrounds a viable stopgap in the meantime. Our legislation provides an alternative by permitting nonprofits and cities to use their state homeless grant funds for designated camping areas or tiny home villages. These are safe, supervised areas away from city centers and neighborhoods where homeless individuals can bring their belongings and have access to running water, sanitary facilities and public safety. Regulated camping areas are a humane alternative to the untenable status quo on our streets.
These low-cost shelters will have resources on-site. Mental health professionals and social workers will work inside the camping areas to manage any crises. Law enforcement officers will ensure that serious disputes are resolved, individuals’ property is protected, and that the camp is a safe environment.
The bill also requires traditional congregate shelters to achieve good outcomes for the homeless in order to continue receiving public funding. Providers will track the improvement in employment and income for those in the shelter, and the rate at which people return to being homeless. If a shelter sees improvements in these areas, it is eligible to receive a financial bonus to further expand its programs. This “pay-for-performance” funding structure allows the state to invest in what is working and move away from what is not.
The bill also ensures that local cities enforce their existing laws on street camping and sleeping. There is no worse place for a homeless person facing addiction or a mental health crisis than on the street. Cities always have the option of low-cost camping or other areas as an alternative, which will now receive state support. The bill prevents cities from using state homelessness funds if they refuse to move people into shelters and safe areas.
Missouri needs more compassionate and effective solutions to help the people who are out on the streets of St. Louis, Kansas City and now even rural areas across the state. We need to address the underlying causes of homelessness by focusing on the mental health and substance abuse issues to make a real impact on the community. Chronic homelessness is about more than lacking a home, and our government should recognize that.
Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, or email at Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or senate.mo.gov/Rehder.