Homelessness in Missouri: The Criminalization of Poverty and Homelessness, A Human Rights Crisis

Homelessness is a widespread issue affecting both rural and urban communities across the United States, with over 650,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, and many more that remain uncounted. This population includes a disproportionate number of veterans, youth, minorities and individuals with disabilities, underscoring systemic failures that contribute to homelessness.

This crisis is fueled by various factors, including the lack of affordable housing, stagnant wages, and systemic inequalities. Missouri mirrors other states grappling with the housing affordability crisis, where only 44 affordable units are available for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. Even with a state minimum wage of $12.30 an hour, that minimum wage worker needs to work 50 hours a week to afford a modest 1-bedroom apartment. During the last point-in-time (PIT) count in 2023, there were 4,068 emergency shelter beds in the state and only 6,918 people experiencing homelessness. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that homelessness increased by 12% and unsheltered homelessness by 24% between 2022 y 2023 in Missouri.

While discussions and interventions concerning housing instability and homelessness often focus on personal moral failings of individuals and aim to fix “broken people,” the stark realities above reveal a broken system. Low-income and working families are being failed by a system that allows for unchecked increases in housing and rent costs while suppressing proportional wage increases and undermining or stripping tenant protections. Despite overwhelming evidence of this broken system, cities and states across the U.S are increasingly advocating for policies and legislation that seek to criminalize and attempt to make invisible the rising homelessness in communities everywhere. These policies only serve to further perpetuate cycles of poverty and injustice.

The Failures of Criminalizing Homelessness and Poverty

A estudiar by the National Homelessness Law Center that tracked laws that criminalize homelessness in 187 cities from 2006-2019 found alarming trends:

  • City-wide bans on camping have increased by 92%, 
  • Bans on sitting or lying increased by 78%, 
  • Loitering bans increased by 103%, 
  • Panhandling bans increased by 103%, 
  • Bans on living in vehicles increased by 213%. 
  • The study also highlights that a 1,300% increase in homeless encampments have been reported across all 50 states. Residents of these types of encampments frequently experience forced evictions or “sweeps” of the encampments, usually with little notice and no provision of alternative housing, frequently resulting in the destruction of important documents, medicines, and what little shelter the residents have. 

In Missouri, a proposed law that would criminalize homelessness and threaten funding for future creation of new affordable housing in jurisdictions with higher than state average homelessness rates was introduced in the Senate this year. This despite only 21 counties out of 115 having emergency shelters, with many shelters only serving certain populations and not accepting everyone requesting a bed (e.g., women only, singles only, no-children shelters, etc).

It is crucial to understand that criminalizing homelessness is not just ineffective, but also counterproductive. People experiencing homelessness cannot afford to keep a roof over their head, they certainly can’t afford to pay fines for engaging in life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, resting, or “camping” in public spaces. Failure to pay these fines can lead to warrants for their arrest. Individuals with criminal records are ten times more likely to experience homelessness. Criminalization only worsens already vulnerable individuals’ long-term housing prospects. These policies harm not only those directly affected, but also harm communities more broadly as they strain law enforcement and the criminal justice system, which are forced to devote more time and resources to enforcing these types of laws.

Criminalizing Poverty and Homelessness is incompatible with the U.S Constitution

Beyond implications already talked about, the criminalization of homelessness raises serious constitutional concerns. Courts throughout the country have increasingly been striking down such legislation due to their unconstitutionality.

  • El Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, yet punishing individuals for engaging in life-sustaining activities such as sleeping and resting in public spaces because they don’t have access to private spaces clearly violates this principle. 
  • Homelessness criminalization often violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. 
  • Panhandling bans have also been struck down in federal courts across the country on 1st Amendment free speech grounds. 
  • Moreover, since the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case Reed vs. Gilbert, 100% of legal challenges to panhandling bans have been successful.

Criminalization is Expensive and Wasteful

Homeless criminalization is not just morally wrong and constitutionally problematic, it is also costly and ineffective. Instead of providing pathways for individuals to escape life on the streets, it creates a costly cycle that shuffles people experiencing homelessness between the streets and the criminal justice system, squandering resources that could be better spent on addressing the root causes of homelessness. 

De acuerdo a federal studies, the public spends between $30,000 and $50,000 per person experiencing homelessness annually, exacerbated in part by criminalization. Communities that implement criminalization measures may also face costly legal challenges and miss out on federal funding opportunities. Notably, the federal government rewards communities that reduce criminalization, offering extra points in its $2.5 billion competitive federal grant program for homeless services.

On the other end of the spectrum, cities that have adopted a housing-first approach instead of criminalization, such Milwaukee y Houston, have seen significant reductions in homelessness by prioritizing housing as a basic human right. As Sarah discussed last week, this approach recognizes that stable housing is a foundational need that enables individuals to address other challenges they may be facing, such as physical or mental health challenges, substance abuse and employment or educational barrier issues.

The Path Forward

We all benefit from cohesive communities that collaborate to tackle challenges. Nobody wants to see individuals forced to live on the streets—neither businesses, residents, nor the individuals themselves. Unfortunately, skyrocketing rents and sluggish minimum wage increases are leading to our streets and prisons becoming default housing for countless individuals. Using the criminal justice system to penalize individuals solely for being poor and without housing is unacceptable and represents poor public policy. The enduring negative impact of these policies on our society and on individuals is significant, immeasurable, and avoidable.

Criminalization is not the answer. It is time to address homelessness as a human rights crisis requiring urgent and compassionate action. At Empower Missouri, we understand that poverty is a policy choice. The criminalization of homelessness exemplifies a negative policy choice that increases poverty and reduces community stability, prosperity, and safety. It is crucial for our state to reassess its approach to homelessness and prioritize compassionate, evidence-based solutions. I encourage all of our readers to explore Missouri’s existing housing programs and to learn more about Housing First policies, which have successfully reduced homelessness rates in other jurisdictions. Our March Friday Forum will also explore policy solutions to homelessness, with a focus on Permanent Supportive Housing (Register AQUÍ). Homelessness is a solvable issue—it’s a policy choice, not an inevitability.

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  1. Dorothy Lehenbauer Wright

    The focus should be on landlords and their behaviors. Their is no oversight as to rental pricing or living conditions. When landlords are allowed to charge $1.25 per square foot and to not make needed repairs it is time for someone to be investigating and oversight of property owners.

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