Date: March 13, 2024
To: Chairwoman Mary Elizabeth Coleman & Members, Senate Health & Welfare Committee
From: Sarah Owsley, Advocacy Director, and Empower Missouri Staff
Re: Opposition to SB 1336

Empower Missouri believes a Missouri without homelessness is possible. We convene a statewide coalition supporting the advancement of evidence-based public policy to increase the availability of affordable housing and support our neighbors with housing needs. We join the bill sponsor in recognizing street homelessness as an untenable and unacceptable status for our neighbors in poverty. However, we are in opposition to SB 1336 and respectfully request you to vote ‘no’ on this bill. We have a number of resources available about the many negative impacts of this bill, which are too numerous to lay out succinctly today. We will provide a full policy memo and multiple data sets to all committee members following this hearing. 

Our concerns with this language are numerous. We testified against this bill in the House and Senate in 2022. While we encourage new funding mechanisms and an increased response to homelessness in Missouri, we know that the failed suggestions within this bill will only increase the difficulties faced by our houseless neighbors. People who live outdoors are the poorest in our communities, with the fewest resources. They are often pushed to the periphery of society and struggle to find accepting communities. Last year, Missouri’s homeless rate increased 12%, and it is clear that more must be done to address this crisis.

Housing First is an evidence based set of principles that acknowledge basic human needs. The notion that Housing First is ‘housing only’ is a dangerous myth. Housing First programs seek to reduce barriers to move people into stable housing as quickly as possible. This is because people living outdoors are never able to experience safety, and they live in a frequent cycle of fight or flight. It is impossible to begin to consider better employment opportunities or addressing substance use in that environment. Before Housing First was widely accepted during George W Bush’s time as president, many programs utilized a ‘treatment first’ model which required sobriety. Housing First was shown to be 88% more effective than treatment first, and the data continues to support its success. 

Housing First is a type of harm reduction that provides safety for participants who then often choose to become sober. Participants also are provided extensive case management and services to increase their income and education, access to health and mental healthcare, and more. A 2004 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed participants in Housing First programs were housed sooner, stayed housed longer, and engaged in services at a higher rate than participants in a treatment first model. According to 2023 Point in Time count data from Missouri, 14% of Missourians experiencing homelessness also experience substance use disorder. Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is an effective, evidence-based intervention for substance use with studies showing that once housed, individuals engage with treatment services voluntarily. 

Permanent Supportive Housing is also one of the most effective strategies we’ve ever used to end homelessness. The goal of PSH is to provide services for participants so they can eventually be successful in maintaining long term housing on their own. According to a 2020 study by the National Institute of Health, 86% of PSH participants were successful in maintaining their housing for the long term. PSH participants also increased their wages by more than 33% and improved their physical and mental health. These outcomes are especially impactful when you recognize what kind of person qualifies for PSH. There are many other housing interventions which supply housing assistance for a much shorter time, PSH is reserved for the most acute cases. Individuals must have been on the street for at least 12 months, often much longer. They have to have a co-occurring disability

This language would make homelessness a misdemeanor in Missouri. Individuals living outdoors would be subject to a fine and jail time if they refuse to go to shelter. We have several concerns with this. First, people who are unable to keep a roof over their own heads are not going to be able to pay a $500 fine and will only face harm when incarcerated. This can begin a cycle of bouncing between jail and the streets, which not only increases the trauma and difficulty of that individual but also costs the taxpayers significantly. Also, individuals charged with a crime are 10 times more likely to experience long-term homelessness. In contrast, PSH has been shown to lower the use of both emergency medical and law enforcement services by 49.5% (according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness). 

Second, a ‘compromise’ struck in 2022 said that individuals would first receive a warning before being cited. That warning will not locate suitable housing or shelter for that individual. How long would a person have after being issued a warning before the same or another office could return to that spot? Finally, only 22 out of Missouri’s 115 counties have emergency shelters at all, and not all of those are acceptable for all individuals. Will the law enforcement officer be responsible to call the shelter three counties away to inquire if the shelter has space for that individual before issuing a citation? Will they have to leave their jurisdiction to offer that person a ride to that county? What happens if the shelter no longer has an open bed 30 minutes later when the law enforcement officer arrives with the person seeking shelter? There is no entity in our state which maintains any type of database that lists where shelters are located, when they are open, when they have beds or are full, or what type of client they serve. Many shelters are only open in inclement weather– will citations still be issued when it is too cool or too warm for these emergency shelters to open? What stops that person from being arrested at 8am when the shelter closes for the day and they are returned to the streets?

The camps discussed in this bill face similar logistical hurdles and will likely cost the Missouri tax payer a substantial amount. These types of camps are often placed in areas like Texas and Florida, where the weather is generally nice enough that someone could live in a canvas tent with power and have access to running water with some success. Missouri is not temperate, and a camp like this would require tiny homes to be safe for the temperature swings we experience. As federal funds cannot be used for this, we would have to use all state resources to construct and operate these camps. There is only one source of state funds which could be used for this, the Missouri Housing Trust Fund (MHTF). Missouri’s HTF is significantly under-resourced and requests for that funding are already 300% or more than the actual resource amount each year. These camps also have a substantial long term cost, with insurance, staffing, utilities, and more. In 2021, Kansas City secured funding to bring a tiny home village to its community to help house some of their homeless residences. They had about 10 million dollars to build 140 pallet homes. Those homes have never been built because city residents flooded city council meetings to keep them out of their communities. 

Homelessness continues to rise in Missouri not because PSH And Housing First are failures, but because they are underfunded. Only 1 in 5 households in Missouri who need housing assistance will be able to get it. There are no counties in our state where a full time minimum wage worker can afford to house themselves. The natural consequence of low wages and high housing costs is that many people will end up on the streets, even while working. As many as 60% of people experiencing homelessness are working, it simply isn’t enough in Missouri to work just one fulltime job any more. Missouri is missing over 114,000 affordable homes for the lowest wage earners in our state. This is not a case of just moving to a cheaper neighborhood, there are not homes available for these families. We encourage the committee to explore other ways to actually reduce and end homelessness, and vote ‘no’ on SB 1336.

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