Homelessness and poverty are not crimes. However, in many communities across Missouri, it is treated like one. Police involvement in the form of ‘camp sweeps’ is often the method used to move people who are houseless out of the areas they have made their home. Springfield, Missouri can be used as a case study for this inhumane phenomenon. In a city of over 150,000 people, the poverty rate in2019 was 23%. The COVID-19 global pandemic has disproportionately impacted low wage earners and people of color, including in Springfield. The city has a much higher-than-average rate of homelessness. Springfield City Councilwoman Heather Hardinger states in an interview that in 2021 there are “more [people who are] homeless in the last 18 months than I’ve ever seen in the past 16 years that I’ve lived in Springfield.” While there are amazing organizations in the area that provide emergency shelter, food, and affordable housing, the resources are not enough to support the growing population of households in a financial crisis.
The city’s solution has largely been to criminalize people who are homeless by forcing them out of public and private spaces, frequently clearing large encampments, and leaving folks with little to no notice to leave . If they do not leave their camp, they face arrest and fines they often cannot pay. Camp sweeps are particularly violent, as individuals must carry everything they own or it is thrown away. Our houseless neighbors report losing cash, medications, personal items, and clothing in sweeps. At city council meetings, it is not uncommon to hear the complaints of community members who want shelters or affordable housing projects closed or moved away from their neighborhoods. This kind of dialogue only furthers the ostracization of people who are unhoused and will not solve homelessness.. The Community Partnership of the Ozarks, a local nonprofit that which operates programs for homeless care recommends:
- Increasing emergency shelters
- Assistance for unhoused folks to navigate government assistance programs
- Increasing the amount of affordable housing units
- Reestablishing a homeless court in which a process is built specifically for the needs of people who are unhoused and aims to prevent incarceration
- Increased mental health and treatment services
Empower Missouri knows the solution to homeless is housing. Our state cannot provide safe shelter and steady resources for all by pushing human beings aside and bulldozing their living spaces. People are not the problem. The system which exists to punish poverty rather than solve it is the problem. By establishing more compassionate and community-driven programs and projects and acknowledging the biases against people who are impoverished baked into our legal system, we can begin to build a city and a state that better serves all the people in it. Housing is a human right, and systems level change is needed across the board in our neighborhoods, cities, state, and at the federal level to help our neighbors reach their own version of their fullest potential.
Empower Missouri works to provide affordable housing and criminal justice reform across the state. Join us by checking out our coalition calls at empowermissouri.org/get-involved.
Empower Missouri Communications Intern