By Elizabeth Barmeier
St. Clair Missourian Editor
Two residents asked city officials how vagrancy can be addressed during the Tuesday, Sept 4, board of aldermen meeting.
Darice Kelley said she has noticed an increase of homeless people on Main Street.
Police Chief Bill Hammack said that vagrancy is not against the law and police cannot do anything if they are sitting or sleeping on public benches.
“We’ve seen an increase of homeless people throughout the entire county. There were two homeless shelters in the city of St. Louis that have shut down and a lot of those people have migrated west,” Hammack said.
He added that the reason why residents have seen vagrancy along Main Street is because there are two organizations that accommodate them, and the police cannot do anything about it.
“If somebody is homeless and they break the law, we arrest them,” Hammack said.
He added that police cannot make them leave or arrest them if they are sitting/sleeping on a bench, or at a business because it would be violating their constitutional rights.
“If you have homeless people who are on your property and you don’t want them there, and you call the police, they will either be removed or arrested,” Hammack said.
He said police have arrested homeless people for trespassing and the police department has received complaints about homeless people at city parks.
Kelley asked Hammack if someone can be arrested for being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He replied with no, unless they have drugs or alcohol on them.
“I know that some of the business owners are working hard to improve Main Street and they’re a bit concerned that it might deter people from shopping,” Kelley said.
Resident Suzanne Lackey brought up her concerns that homeless people are breaking into homes where home owners are present. She referenced an incident a few weeks ago where a man broke into a St. Clair home and slept in the basement. He was charged with burglary.
“I know there’s only so much you can do, but what can we do … as a community, as business owners to take our town back?” she asked
Hammack said St. Clair was a more violent area in 1990s than it is today.
“We had seven homicides in the 1990s. We’ve had three within the last 13 years. We have no more burglaries now than we had 10 years ago,” Hammack said.
“The only increase we’ve had are drug arrests, domestic assaults and petty thefts. So the break-ins are no worse now than they were 10 years ago.”
He reiterated that homeless people cannot be arrested for just sitting or sleeping on public benches.
“You cannot pass laws that say homeless people are not allowed in our city. Municipalities can’t do it, it’s deemed unconstitutional,” Hammack said.
“Most of the problems that we have with people who are indigent come from our rental properties in this town.”
“What happens is, they don’t pay their rent or they’re shacked up with someone else in those rental properties, they get kicked out and then they’re wandering our streets.”
Hammack added that if homeless people break the law, that’s when police can intervene.
“We’re up to 500 arrests this year and we’ll end up with about 750,” he said.
“We do address these individuals. What we cannot control is what the courts do.”
He said those who are indigent and are arrested for petty crimes, are not held responsible in court for paying their fine because they have no income.
“When you have businesses in town or organizations that provide certain services to these people, word gets out and more come here,” Hammack said.
Lackey asked if the organizations are responsible for the homeless people they bring in. Hammack said no, they would not be responsible.
He added that it would help if those who open homeless shelters to only take people who are from the St. Clair area.
“I hate to say it, but when you provide services for homeless people, you bring more problems into the community,” Hammack said.
“We frown on people who bring in those type of people in our community whether you are renting to them or giving them free stuff.”
Hammack said laws are in place, but there are not a lot of consequences for those who violate laws.
The idea of having a neighborhood watch was mentioned as a way to help. Hammack said he teaches members of a neighborhood the guidelines and how they work.
Mayor Ron Blum recommended having a special meeting with Hammack for those who are interested in neighborhood watches.