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Missouri Supreme Court rules controversial homelessness law unconstitutional

Ilse Orsel
A woman experiencing homelessness sits with her belongings.

Last year, Missouri lawmakers passed a law known as House Bill 1606, seen as controversial because it banned camping on "state-owned lands." On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court struck down the law in a 6-0 ruling.

Last year, Missouri lawmakers passed a controversial law known as House Bill 1606. On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.

Along with numerous other provisions related to political subdivisions, HB1606 also bans anyone in Missouri from using state-owned lands for so-called “unauthorized sleeping,” along with camping or long-term shelters. Violations can be punished as a misdemeanor crime.

The state’s highest court found the law unconstitutional because, judges wrote, lawmakers didn’t follow Missouri’s basic requirement that no bill may contain more than one subject, which has to be clearly expressed in the title of the bill.

Springfield’s Jessi Honeycutt, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued back in September, quickly took to social media Tuesday afternoon to declare “VICTORY!”

Honeycutt said the ruling was a “TRIUMPH over the unconstitutionality of HB 1606 criminalizing houselessness.”

Springfield-based Eden Village, which provides services to unsheltered people, was also a plaintiff in the suit.

Anti-poverty advocates often argue that policy strategies like criminalizing outdoor camping don’t reduce homelessness, but do make it harder for homeless people to get into housing and lead healthier, more productive lives.

But the conservative Cicero Institute think tank called HB 1606 a way to “help reduce the dangers of street homelessness for the communities and the homeless themselves.”

Rev. Christie Love, pastor of a Springfield-area church that ministers to unsheltered people but was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told Ozarks Public Radio in a text message that she's "thrilled" by the court's decision.

"It is my hope that the new year brings new conversations at the state and local level as to how we better address the complex issues of shelter instability rather than arrests, jail time and court fines," Love said.

The Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling means that HB 1606 is “invalid in its entirety.” The Tuesday ruling reversed a lower court decision.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.