One of my pet peeves is hostile architecture. If you live in a city, you probably see it all the time without thinking twice about it. You ever notice benches that are comfortable enough to sit on, but they are shaped oddly? Maybe they have a little rise in the middle that would be an armrest, if not for being too low to actually let you rest your arm on it. Those are to deter homeless people from sleeping on them. Once that clicked for me, I started seeing the hostility everywhere. Train stations that once had benches magically lose them overnight.
And it isn’t just New York — you see it in Missouri too. And this hostility isn’t just architectural. It’s written into the law.
First, the new law makes it a misdemeanor for unhoused people to sleep on state-owned property. That could have wide-ranging effects in urban areas, where homeless people often congregate in state right-of-ways, such as under highway overpasses. And in rural areas, homeless people often camp in state parks.
Second, the new law penalizes cities that don’t enforce it, allowing the attorney general to seek to file civil action against non-compliant cities.
Finally, the law upends the “housing first” model that nearly every agency that battles homelessness in Missouri has adopted. Rehder and DeGroot seek to take money that helps people find shelter and redirect it to areas such as mental health services.
Before we even get to the legality of this response, this is just cruel. Who looks at a person with no place to stay sleeping on a bench and thinks, “Yeah, on top of this they need a criminal record.” Sleeping. Not destruction of property. Not theft. Going night night. I didn’t think I’d have to say this today, but if you find a homeless person who escaped the rain by going under a bridge and happens to be asleep, hitting them with a misdemeanor that could cost them money or time in prison probably isn’t the best way to handle the situation. Thankfully, there are folks who are doing their best to help people dealing without housing.
“I was livid,” Miles says about the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson. “You’re punishing someone simply for their status. Criminalizing people for being homeless, you’re essentially saying you don’t have the right to exist.”
Miles, who operates a nonprofit called Street Level Cape Girardeau, is one of the plaintiffs in the second of two lawsuits filed in the past month seeking to overturn the new law. The first one was filed by attorneys in Springfield, and the second by the St. Louis-based nonprofit Legal Services for Eastern Missouri and the Public Citizen Litigation Group, based in Washington, D.C.