Advocates Ask City Of Springfield To Change Its Policy On Homeless Camps

Dec 7, 2020

A volunteer with The Connecting Grounds church in Springfield prepares to take donated items out to homeless camps in Springfield.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

On the eve of Thanksgiving this year, it was rainy and cold in Springfield. But the two emergency cold weather shelters didn’t open that night, based on when and how long the National Weather Service predicted the temperature would hover around freezing.  

So a tiny outreach team, led by a local pastor and her band of volunteers, went to work like a well-oiled machine.

Christie Love is pastor at The Connecting Grounds and an advocate for the homeless. Every night that dips below 45 degrees, she’s here—at her church’s outreach facility, loading up two vehicles with boots, blankets and hand warming packets.

This outreach is funded through donations from individuals and organizations, Love said. She said it doesn’t receive funding through the local government-contracted entity that coordinates homeless services and funding, The Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness.

One homeless camp served by The Connecting Grounds outreach team is under a bridge in Springfield.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

A large truck full of supplies sets out for the West part of Springfield.  And Love, driving a van with a couple of masked volunteers, plans to hit Battlefield Road, Campbell Avenue and downtown.

Love finds one man sitting on the concrete outside a convenience store. She tells him it’s going to get very cold tonight—right around freezing—and instructs him on where to strategically place six hand warmers to avoid the life-threatening condition of hypothermia.

The next spot is under a bridge where about 25 people are huddled in sleeping bags or bundled up in hoodies and blankets. One of them is Frank Fisher. He says he’s been homeless since September after a personal relationship went sour. He gets a disability check now, but says he’s had good jobs at Bass Pro and the company that manufactured Rival Crockpots. And then there was his favorite job: working at a dog kennel between Fordland and Diggins.

“I mean, I had two Boxers that loved me, Duncan and Bruiser,” he recalls.

Pastor Christie Love of The Connecting Grounds gathers supplies and directs volunteers in her church's outreach center before heading out to homeless camps on November 25, 2020.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

Fisher says he’s on a list for housing through One Door, the entry point for locals seeking help with homelessness. But he’s in a special category of people for whom it’s particularly hard to find housing.

“I’m a felon,” he said, adding that he agreed to a plea deal on charges of second-degree burglary and forgery.

He says he’s told by social workers that the wait for low-income housing will be two to three months.

While he waits for housing, he often sleeps at this homeless camp under a bridge, which advocates say is one of the few camps not routinely disbanded by the police.

Love attributes that to the mercy of the person who oversees the nearest building.

“Yeah, so here's the great problem of Springfield. I mean, I'll be super honest with you, there is no legal place for them to go,” Love said.

Advocates: the homeless need a protected space

Love is on a new task force affiliated with the Springfield NAACP that has asked the City of Springfield to let the homeless camp out this winter, in part because the pandemic has meant less capacity and more barriers at local shelters. You can read the task force's full letter here

An outreach team from The Connecting Grounds church in Springfield delivers hot coffee, hand warmers and warm clothing to the homeless.
Credit Jennifer Moore / KSMU

“Currently in Springfield, you cannot legally pitch a tent or put up a tarp and sleep underneath it. If that tent ortarp gets complaints, then, you know, law enforcement will come and remove the structure. We see people whose belongings are picked up, are thrown away pretty regularly by the police, by the police, by Public Works, by, you know, building owners,” Love said.

City spokeswoman Cora Scott said when responding to a complaint of a homeless camp, the Springfield Police Department follows a protocol that was developed by the city, police, Public Works and the HUD-designated Continuum of Care. (You can find the full protocol at the bottom of this article). 

That protocol has different scenarios depending on whether the campers are on public or private property, whether anyone’s in danger, and how quickly a private property owner wants the camp cleared. In a nutshell, on public property, if no one’s in danger, then the protocol reads as follows:

1) The Springfield Police Department (SPD) will notify the individuals in the homeless camp that they must relocate and will explain why they must move.  The homeless campers will be given twenty-four hours to collect their belongings and vacate the site.

Then, after the 24-hour notice has expired, the city’s Public Works Department schedules a time to clean up any remaining belongings.

But Love says this is leading to heartbreaking stories of loss and despair, not to mention some resentment, in a city that doesn’t have good options for a low-barrier, emergency shelter.

She says she’s seen other communities that have set up parking lots or gated areas when people can park or camp then leave by a predesignated time the next morning.

“In the evening, they could pop a tent up, outreach teams could bring them dinner, medical teams could check symptoms of people, you could come by and make sure people were OK. You could have security patrol the area, and then those tents have to come down, you know, by early in the morning,” Love said.

City Manager Jason Gage says he’s not satisfied with the fact that there are many unsheltered homeless people in Springfield as we head into winter. And he says the pandemic has heightened the situation.
Most municipalities generally address the issue of homeless camps in a similar way, Gage said.

“The way cities are structured, there are multiple laws that deal with land uses and what you can and can't do, health and safety regulations and so forth, that all contribute to, in essence, camping,” Gage said.

Like anyone who’s worked on homeless issues, Gage knows solutions are usually very complex. They often involve issues of safety, hunger, transportation, public zoning and health—and that’s just in years when there’s not a deadly coronavirus at large.

“And so, a lot of what we do when we deal with public property, we use it for the primary public purpose. And primary public purpose is not generally housing or sheltering. It's for transportation or it could be for other means. And so it's not usually inherently built in that one could otherwise live as a resident in a public area,” Gage said.

Gage said city staff are reviewing the NAACP task force request and plan to respond this week.

Full wording: City of Springfield's Protocol for Moving Homeless Camps 

This protocol will be followed by the City of Springfield when responding to a complaint of a homeless camp and moving the camp under the following two conditions:
• The homeless camp is on public property and there is not immediate/impending danger to the homeless individuals or others.
• The homeless camp is on private property and the property owner has authorized the City to follow this protocol.

1) The Springfield Police Department (SPD) will notify the individuals in the homeless camp that they must relocate and will explain why they must move.  The homeless campers will be given twenty-four hours to collect their belongings and vacate the site.
2) The Springfield Police Department will notify Springfield-Greene County 911 Emergency Communications of the location of the camp and the fact that a 24- hour notice has been given.  Emergency Communications staff will contact the Affordable Housing Center’s “One Door” office (225-7499) and the City of Springfield’s Department of Public Information and Civic Engagement.
a. The Affordable Housing Center will notify the “homeless advocate agencies” on their list so these agencies can provide assistance as they are able and willing.  While the Affordable Housing Center is typically open 8:30-5:00, Monday through Friday, an “after hours” phone number will also be provided will allow 24-hour access to a staff member.
3) If the Springfield Police Department feels an after-move clean-up will be necessary for a public site, they will notify the Public Works Department of (a) the location of the camp and (b) confirm a 24-hour notice has been issued to the campers.
4) The City of Springfield Public Works Department will schedule a clean-up for the location after the 24-hour notice has expired.  This time gap will ensure homeless campers have sufficient time to move and/or retrieve any desired items.
5) If homeless campers return to the site before Public Works can clean the area, then SPD shall be contacted and respond.  Public Works employees will not proceed with any clean-up efforts while homeless campers are still present.
6) The clean-up of private property locations are the responsibility of the property owner.

If (a) the camp is on public property and there is an immediate/impending danger to the homeless individuals or others, or (b) the camp is on private property and the property owner has requested immediate removal of the trespassers, then upon issuance of a summons, an immediate removal of the homeless campers shall occur in the most humane and considerate method possible given the circumstances.  The SPD shall take all action necessary to remove the campers, and shall notify Springfield-Greene County Emergency Communications to contact the Affordable Housing Center and the City’s Department of Public Information & Civic Engagement.  Affordable Housing Center staff will notify the agencies and “homeless advocates” on their list offering to provide assistance in such situations in order to allow them to help the homeless campers as they are able and willing to do so.