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Kansas plan to penalize homeless people for sleeping on public property draws sharp criticism

A homeless camp
Carlos Moreno
Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that has mixed results in Missouri.

The bill had only one person speak in support with over 50 people testifying in opposition.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A proposal to address homelessness with bans on camps for people without housing drew sharp criticism in the Kansas Legislature on Thursday.

The legislation makes it a misdemeanor for unauthorized camping, sleeping or setting up long-term shelters on land controlled by the state or local government.

That crime would come with a $1 fine. The bill would also let the Kansas attorney general penalize cities that don’t enforce the no-camping rule and let the state deny non-compliant cities money to combat homelessness — if a city also has an above-average homelessness rate.

The conservative Austin, Texas,-based Cicero Institute is pushing similar bills through proposed model legislation on its website. Judge Glock told lawmakers on Thursday the legislation would get people off the streets and into shelters or homes of family members.

Glock said it would take too long for cities or counties to build the housing needed to help people in the short term.

“Part of the point of this bill is this is asking, ‘What can we do this week, this month, this year?’” Glock said.

He said unsanctioned camping sites can become “open-air drug markets.” That drew criticism from one Democratic lawmaker. Glock emphasized a need to provide services to homeless people, though the bill wouldn’t fund or increase that help.

He said cities that implemented similar bills saw people return to their families or get the help they needed.

“The goal here is that not a single human will ever be on the streets,” Glock said.

However, that hasn’t happened in Missouri.

The Missouri Legislature passed a similar bill that took effect at the start of this year. And while the change is still new, the Kansas City Star reported that unhoused people scattered, even heading to more heavily wooded areas. That has made it harder for service providers to help them.

Glock was the only person to speak in support of the bill while over 50 people spoke against it, saying it will criminalize homelessness, propose no real solutions and trample on cities’ abilities to address the issue on their own.

Multiple opponents said services have long wait lists and beds might not even be available for people who want them, forcing people onto the street.

Eric Arganbright said he was homeless. His father was a minister and his family lived in the church. One day, his father left and he had nowhere to live because church housing was only available to those who worked for the church.

He said his mother had three jobs but they still slept along rivers and in the back of their car. Arganbright was one of a handful of speakers who said criminal penalties won’t address the poverty that drives homelessness.

“The problem with this specific bill … is it would have criminalized my mother,” Arganbright said.

Rachel Russell also criticized the bill, saying Black Kansans are only 7% of the population but over 20% of the homeless population in Kansas. She said the bill targets people like her and her children.

“Bills such as (this) disproportionately impact people that look like me, that I raise and that I serve,” she said.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.