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Missouri needs affordable housing, not laws criminalizing homelessness, advocates say

Kathy Connors, Gateway 180 Homeless Services executive director, on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, at the women and children’s shelter in Carr Square. A Missouri bill that would make it a felony to sleep on state-owned land and bans organizations from using state and federal grants to build permanent housing for the unhoused is set to go into effect in 2023.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kathy Connors, executive director of Gateway180 Homeless Services, said criminalizing people who live under bridges or on other state-owned property will perpetuate homelessness.

Toward the end of 2020, Kathy Connors saw requests for beds double at her agency, Gateway180 Homeless Services, near downtown St. Louis. Many people who called for assistance lost their jobs, faced rents they couldn’t pay and were seeking shelter for the first time.

Gateway180 and other shelters in the region are over capacity and cannot keep up with the demand for beds. Connors, executive director of the shelter for women and children, and other advocates for homeless people say local governments need to create more affordable housing to keep people off the streets.

The St. Louis Affordable Housing Report, prepared by more than 30 organizations, found that St. Louis and St. Louis County need more than 35,000 affordable housing units for Black households, low-income families and renters.

Advocates also are calling on legislators to give families a place to live other than on sidewalks or under bridges.

Despite their efforts, on Jan. 1, a new Missouri law will make camping or living on state-owned property illegal. If someone refuses to accept a bed at a shelter, police can charge them with a misdemeanor. Also, the Missouri attorney general can sue local governments that do not comply with the law, which could decrease St. Louis and St. Louis County’s funding for housing and homeless services.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke to Connors about how the new law will affect St. Louis and its homeless population.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Andrea Henderson: Across the nation, state legislatures are passing laws that advocates for homeless people say criminalize homelessness, including the Missouri legislature. What are your thoughts on the growth of laws that restrict or ban people from living on the streets?

Kathy Connors: To criminalize it is very damaging to the individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. Not only does it penalize them, but it really does severely damage them. … I think it is coming to the issue of homelessness with a one size fits all [approach] and really failing to recognize that the subject of this bill is our neighbors. And that is a pretty devastating thought.

Henderson: One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Bruce DeGroot of Chesterfield, said that the law is not going to criminalize people for being homeless, although many advocates believe that it will. What typically happens when officers interact with people who live or camp on the streets?

Connors: I do not know that we will see as much of a negative in the city of St. Louis. But as you have the requirements for individuals not to be on the street, it's going to become more of a challenge and that is going to be difficult. That is when you have the system strained and when you have individuals who are stepping in to solve an immediate need. That is when they are stressed with maybe a lack of support or a lack of solutions. And I think that is when we are going to see maybe no other option other than to detain somebody.

Henderson: Some people who are homeless have felonies on their records. Does that make it more difficult for them to get affordable housing or rent from landlords?

Connors: It absolutely does. And it also creates a difficulty for employment purposes. … That record, or that misdemeanor, is going to be a barrier.

Henderson: How do you see this law being enforced by local governments if there is not enough housing?

Connors: I see it as becoming very, very messy and contentious. It is hard not to look at this bill, and see it as being an optics move. And what I mean by that is that you are removing individuals from the streets, you are removing the appearance of homelessness, but you are not implementing the long-term solutions that are truly going to end homelessness.

Henderson: What are some of those solutions that you think cities and counties need to solve homelessness?

Connors: Yeah, more investment in housing, housing that comes with case management, as well as the connection to other community resources, whether that is mental health services or medical health services. … The other thing that I would have to say is there is a need for day services. … That would allow individuals a place to be during the day, a place with resources, a place to regroup, a place to get on the computer and check your email if you have made a job application or a housing application. Or, a place to take a shower or wash your clothes.

Henderson: Has Gateway180 received any COVID relief money from either the state or from St. Louis or St. Louis County to help people in need of housing or rental assistance to keep them off the streets?

Connors: So we, as a shelter, have not received our ARPA funds in support of our shelter, which is a little ironic. But we are getting ready to start an ARPA-funded Rapid Rehousing program. … We will be able to assist them with housing application costs, deposits and with rent up to a certain level. More importantly, it will enable us to case manage those households in order to work with them to obtain that financial independence that will allow them to move straight into permanent housing.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.