An ordinance approved by the St. Joseph City Council on Monday aims to keep people from sleeping in public places and was triggered by complaints about homeless people taking up residence under a local bridge.
The item, which was passed unanimously, prohibits camping or living in parks and public spaces unless permitted by the city or the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Mayor Bill McMurray, who sponsored the provision, said a number of complaints had been made to the city regarding homeless people living underneath the bridge at Belt Highway and U.S. Highway 36.
“The ordinance that was passed grew out of a lot of citizen concern over people living under the underpass,” McMurray said. “Other communities have passed similar ordinances. We looked at similar ordinances in, I believe Independence, and Cape Girardeau had kind of an interesting one.”
He said Cape Girardeau sent pictures of “No Camping” signs that have been put up under underpasses in their city.
He said the city wants to encourage those in need to take advantage of services and shelters that are offered.
“This is not meant to hurt anybody, we just don’t want to have people under the bridge,” McMurray said. “We have shelters in town, we have services for the homeless and we don’t want people out there getting hurt, especially now that winter is coming along.”
McMurray said there are several areas in town where homeless people tend to live where they will no longer be legally allowed to stay, including along the Riverwalk trail, where he said he has seen tents and a grill for cooking set up near the Riverfront Park.
“We just don’t want people living on the Riverfront, we don’t want them living under bridges,” McMurray said. “We have services to help people and we want to help them. We also want to be sensitive to business owners and residents who are concerned when they see people there.”
McMurray said some of the homeless population may be suffering from untreated mental illness and should be helped by local service groups. He said getting them off of the streets is the first step toward getting them that help.
He said the ordinance has “nothing to do with panhandling,” which is separate and protected under the First Amendment.
The city worked with the Missouri Department of Transportation, which maintains the Belt Highway and Highway 36, in order to get their permission to allow the St. Joseph Police Department to enforce the new law.