Missouri’s top mental health official balked at new homeless law. The governor signed it anyway. | Law and order

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said  anyone found illegally camping on state-owned land could face a felony charge. The penalty is a $750 fine or a Class C misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 15 days in prison.

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson ignored the concerns of one of his cabinet members about a new law targeting Missouri’s homeless population.

In a May letter obtained by the Post-Dispatch, Missouri Department of Mental Health Director Valerie Huhn told the governor’s budget office that the law will have negative impacts on people living on the streets and could exacerbate the problems, rather than fix them.

“When people experiencing homelessness have criminal justice histories, it is difficult to find housing,” Huhn wrote.

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Parson, who announced Huhn’s selection as director in December, signed the Republican-backed measure into law in June.

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, makes it illegal to sleep on state-owned land, such as under highway overpasses and bridges. After one warning, anyone found illegally camping on state-owned land could face a $750 fine or a Class C misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 15 days in prison.

The law authorizes the state attorney general to sue cities that don’t enforce the ban. It further penalizes cities with rates of homelessness higher than the state average by taking away state funding for unhoused services.

The measure also bars cities and organizations from using state and federal grants to build permanent housing for the unsheltered. Rather, that money must be directed to build temporary camps.

People wanting to stay at the temporary camps must submit to mental health and substance-use evaluations, which contradicts the current federally backed “Housing First” model, which says no one should have to meet requirements to seek shelter.

Huhn has a long history as an administrator in state government, having worked at the Office of Administration, the governor’s budget office, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Senior Services. She joined DMH as chief of its Division of Developmental Disabilities in 2014 and was named the department’s deputy director in 2020.

Her concerns echo a long list of opponents to the legislation, which was sponsored in the House by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville.

DeGroot argued that his approach, based on a similar law in Texas, would get people off the streets.

In her letter, Huhn said the focus on short-term housing fails to provide an adequate level of support for people seeking to have stability in their housing.

“Private landlords statewide may choose not to lease to persons experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons, such as no rental history, no credit or poor credit, or criminal justice histories,” she wrote. “Stable housing is a key component of successful recovery.”

The new law also puts limits on how the state can use funding for homelessness programs.

In a separate letter from the staff of the Missouri Housing Development Commission, of which Parson is a member, officials also raised concerns about the new law, saying it will “heavily impact” the state’s urban areas.

The commission letter, dated May 23, also said the law could limit the uses of state and federal funds in building permanent housing for the homeless.

“Many activities in the bill are not currently funded through existing programs and are too vague to make a determination of eligibility,” the MHDS document notes.

Parson’s signature on the legislation marked the second law he signed over the objections of his agency directors.

In May, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said a law barring the release of information about polluters could reduce the public’s ability to ensure environmental laws are being enforced equitably.

The homeless legislation is included in House Bill 1606.

Posted at 11 a.m. Friday, July 15. Updated Monday, July 18, to clarify penalty for sleeping on state-owned land.

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