A More Compassionate Approach to Homelessness

We’ve all seen them. The homeless in our communities. Maybe it was while leaving a restaurant late, cutting across an alley downtown to save time, or maybe simply a quick glance into the dark crevices under the overpass as you turned to merge onto the interstate. They are there. Out of sight…at least for the most part.

I remember well when I had my first conversation with my youngest son, Christian, about homelessness. We were walking through an alley in Memphis, headed to one of my favorite BBQ restaurants, Rendezvous, and a man was curled up in the shadows of a door jam. I knew he was trying to stay out of the way, maybe in the cool of the shadows, and out of the site of onlookers. My son was about 13-years-old, and coming from a middle-class home in a rural community, he had not seen someone living on the streets so up close and personal–as he did at that moment.

It broke his heart. And in true Christian form, he subsequently had a lot of questions. 

As we ate our hearty meal at Rendezvous, we discussed the socioeconomic issues that can contribute to someone ultimately living on the streets. We talked about mental illness, an abusive home life, drug addiction; and we talked about members of our family that had lived on the streets in the past. Family that he didn’t realize had been in that painful position before. Christian made sure we had a to-go box and a soda in our hands as we left. We kindly walked over to the older gentleman, greeted him with warm smiles, and sat the meal down beside him and we wished him a good-night. 

That was a decade ago, and even with the “Housing First” method being pushed by the federal government, and billions being thrown at the issue, we are still trending in the wrong direction.     

A decade ago, many of our rural areas were not experiencing the homelessness that we are experiencing now. Many people were not aware. But now, in 2022, I think we can all say that there are folks in all communities struggling. 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 get struggling Missourians the help that they desperately need, clean up our streets, and make our communities safer.

I introduced SB 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, my 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 expensive free housing construction 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 percent of chronically homeless people have a serious mental illness, 75 percent 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. My 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. Getting folks plugged into the mental health services that they need, begins to provide the sturdy foundation that a person needs to get on their feet. Trying to get a job, or hold a job, when struggling with mental illness simply doesn’t work long-term. 

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. That is a true common sense approach, and certainly what we see in successful businesses. It’s unfortunate that in government, we tend to continue failing programs–to the detriment of those in need, and to the detriment of our tax dollars. It doesn’t make sense.

Senate Bill 1106 also ensures that local cities enforce their existing laws on street camping and sleeping. In my opinion, there is no worse place for a homeless person facing addiction or a mental crisis than on the street. We know that many are sexually abused and trafficked. Cities always have the option of low-cost camping or other areas as an alternative, which under this bill, would now receive state support. This  bill also 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 our rural areas across the state. We need to address the underlying causes of homelessness. We can do that by focusing on the mental health and substance abuse issues of the homeless. This focus will make a real impact on the community. 

Chronic homelessness is about more than lacking a home, and always has been. It’s time our government recognize that. I’m grateful that I’ve seen this issue from the other side, and I’m thankful that I have been able to teach my children to look beyond the broken man in the dirty corner’s current place in life–and to consider what might have gotten him there; and even more so, to be thankful to have not walked a mile in his shoes.

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